by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Generally maligned as the inventor of “dialectical materialism” (read: vulgarized Marxism) and praised as the “first Marxist,” Friedrich Engels has so far not received the judicious and all-sided appreciation that both he and Marx tried to give to thinkers and events in their lifetime. It would be a fitting tribute to Engels’ achievement on this occasion to heed his advice in Anti-Duhring (1878): to refuse the metaphysical mode of “absolutely irreconcilable antitheses” and pursue its opposite by comprehending “things and their representations in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.” I hasten to assert that I am not at all endorsing here a metaphysical materialism, an ontology of matter, in which a teleological design or ineluctable law of motion, a paradigmatic metanarrative of development, is used to explain every phenomena. Nor can one still countenance here the still influential caricature of Marxism as crude economic determinism and its corollary, one-dimensional correspondence schemas–monumental relics of Cold War anti-communist propaganda. I would insist rather that Engels subscribed to a materialism of relations (Verhaltnisse) and complex mediations (Vermittlung) defining the problematique of scientific inquiry.
References to motion, diachronic shifts, and metamorphosis predominate in Engels’ thought. In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Philosophy (1888), Engels staged the overturning of Hegelian idealism by rejecting Hegel’s reduction of reality to images of the absolute concept. Engels reconceptualized dialectics as “the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought–two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents” (Marx/Engels 1968, 619). In comprehending the world as a “complex of processes,” Engels pointed out that apparently fixed things as well as their mental reflections “go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, in spite of all seeming accidentality and all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end” (1968, 620). Accident and contingency manifest the working of necessity and lawfulness, retrogression becomes part of progression–such paradoxes are summed up later in three axioms: the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa, the interpenetration of opposites, and the negation of the negation (1940, 26; see Bhaskar 1993, 150-52). In Dialectics of Nature (1875), Engels valorized motion as “the mode of existence, the inherent attribute of matter,” which “comprehends all changes and processes occurring in the universe, from mere change of place right to thinking” (1940, 35). Traditionally conceived as the science of the sensible, aesthetics in the Engelsian framework then becomes a science of the forms of apprehended motion–human actions described through the syntagmatic (temporal) and paradigmatic (spatial) axes of all sign-systems. Space and time are universal forms of the existence of matter (Krapivin 1985); within space/time coordinates, Engels writes, “the qualitative alteration, the change of form, is the basic condition for all physical work” (1940, 73). Forms of sensible motion constitute the substance of the aesthetic as a specific region of class-conditioned ideology cognized here as misrecognition of reality, a social imaginary inscribed in ideological apparatuses of legitimation such as the family, literature/art as institutional media, the theater, and so on.
Contrary to the received consensus, I want to argue here that Engels’s aesthetics is a revolutionary project of superseding the bourgeois (Kantian) fragmentation of life into the spheres of instrumental reason, morality, and taste
by locating the space of the aesthetic in history, specifically in sensuous praxis. This praxis involves the inherently contradictory nature of the aesthetic as a historically limited category. W.F. Haug (1987) has insightfully demonstrated this contradiction between the sense of autonomous freedom (ascribed to pleasure induced by art) and the heteronomous, ideological function of art as a means of reproducing domination and legitimizing it. This contradiction is inflected in Engels’s thought as that between accident and necessity, the singular and the typical, in literary form as well as in the evolution of institutions like the family and gender differentiation.
To sublate the contradiction, Engels affirms the shifting, motion-filled space of the aesthetic whose border (where interior [sense of community] and exterior [alienation in market relations] meet) can be shifted in a transformative, radical direction. Art can thus become a means of the “self-socialization of the individual” (Haug 1987, 141), art’s cognitive-pedagogical contribution to socialist revolution. In effect, the fatal division of labor in class society (of which aesthetics is a symptom) is what Engels seeks to overcome. A rehearsal of Engels’s central ideas is necessary to understand how aesthetics can be “used” and superseded.
In 1859 Engels ascribed to Marx the “materialistic conception of history” in which a dialectical mode of thinking analyzed the complexity of class struggles coinciding with the mutations in the structures of production and exchange generated by the contradiction between productive forces and social relations. In the critique of the mystifications of bourgeois political economy, Marx revealed “the secret of capitalist production through surplus value.” For Engels, the production of knowledge of historical change is both a scientific grasp of the “laws of motion” in society and an act of political intervention. The historical materialist organon interprets the world as an integral part of a project of changing it, hence theory invariably performs a revolutionary function. While the human mind is conditioned by life (social being) and reflects not simplistically but through refracting mediations the reality of the world, this does not imply that Engels has abolished tout court the power of human agency–the intervention of consciousness–invested in culture, technology, and the concrete self-activity of productive forces, in particular the associated producers of use-values. Contrary to the objection made by Georg Lukacs, in History and Class Consciousness (1923) among others, that Engels’ positivistic “laws of motion” had erased subjectivity, one can assert that the “subject” is now conceived as a relational or articulating principle of historical totality. The linkage of thinking and being inheres in transformative critique: the revolutionary restructuring of society grasped simultaneously as knowledge and as social action. Subject and object begin to coalesce in conscious organized practice. As humans begin to comprehend and control the immediate and remote consequences of their actions, the more will they begin to “not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body” (1972, 261).
What I want to emphasize here is that Engels’ thinking was always informed by a revolutionary agenda, a desire for realizing the collective emancipation of humanity. His genius was essentially strategic. His praxis-driven intelligence oriented all his speculations on epistemology, history, political economy, and scientific research. Even when he was invoking the three great discoveries in natural science as justification for the general laws of motion–how superficial accidents are really governed by inner hidden laws–his utopian vision drew its liberating energy from the principle that categories of thought are fluid, open to unpredictable occurrences, and susceptible to the irruption of the new. Paradoxically, in Engels’ analysis, the necessity of historical advance toward humankind’s emancipation goes through tragic episodes, through aleatory detours where all protagonists encounter antinomies, unexpected turns, ironical reversals–the cunning “specter” of the negative. History is not “a process without a subject” (to quote Althusser’s famous phrase) but, from Engels’ standpoint, a process in which diverse incommensurable subjects whose individual wills, even as they are cancelled/preserved in the conjunctural event, are in the end seen to be governed by an emancipatory impulse and motive, what Agnes Heller calls “for itself species objectification” (1972, 51).
What is unique about Engels’ preoccupation with forms of historical motion? While Marx is credited for establishing the principles of historical-materialist critique that later on were refined and elaborated by Lukacs, Caudwell, Raphael, Hauser, della Volpe, Morawski, Haug, and others into the schema of a materialist aesthetics, I believe that Engels’ contribution is pregnant with more radical innovative consequences. A review of Marx’s reflections on art may be useful at this juncture.
In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton locates the fundamental axiom of Marx’s aesthetics in the humanization of the senses, of sense-perception (both sensuous consciousness and need) as the “basis of all science.” The goal of revolution against class society via the “supersession of private property” is the “complete emancipation of all the human senses”; when the senses become human and become “theoreticians in their immediate praxis,” freedom is realized (Adams 1991). The recovery of the body’s powers and capacities enables the socialized individual to experience the rationality of pleasure. When nature and the products of labor are no longer exploited for mere utility and the accumulation of expropriated surplus value for its own sake, the sensuous practice incarnated in the enjoyment of work and the use-values of the objects shaped by human labor will finally confirm the advent of freedom from capitalist alienation and reification. This key insight comes from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: “Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form–in short, senses capable of human gratifications, senses confirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being…. The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” (1973: 52). The humanization of nature involves the “objectification” (via practice) of human powers both theoretical and practical. When life-activity becomes the object of will and consciousness, then aesthetic reflection becomes possible: “An animal forms things in accordance with the measure and the need of the species to which it belongs, while man knows how to produce in accordance with the measure of every species and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent measure to the object. Man, therefore, also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty…. (1973, 51; Arvon 1973).
For Marx, literature equals a “universal-creative, self-creative activity by which man transforms and creates his world and himself” (Prawer 1978, 405). What distinguishes humans from animals is not reason but the imagination, the power that makes human life-activity the object and desire of consciousness (Lifshitz 1933). Conforming to the ideals of Greek art mediated by German classical philosophy, Marx’s aesthetics is humanist and universalizing in affirming the will to enrich and gratify species-needs. Engels, on the other hand, shifts the focus to the formation of the sensibility and the sensorium in the transaction between the body and nature in work, productive labor, practice in general.2 In other words, the physiognomy of beauty unfolds in the manifold shapes of sociohistorical motion.
Although this might be a fine point of discrimination to stress, I would nevertheless like to highlight this distinctive quality in Engels’ aesthetics: his perspective foregrounds the laboring collective body, not merely the senses and consciousness accompanying it, as central to the pleasure found in sensuous-cognitive practice. I consider Engels’ essay, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” (1876) crucial in any effort to “naturalize” the idealistic predilection in the academic discipline of aesthetics to invoke a certain “aura” or magic in art, a sacralizing tendency that both Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, among others, have tried hard to exorcise. Not only is labor the “prime basic condition” of social existence, but it also created humans. Poetic rhythm itself was born from manual labor, literally hands at work (Caudwell 1937; Thomson 1947). Engels argues this foundational premise by tracing the causal network that shaped the “modern” hand:
Thus the hand is not only the organ of labor, it is also the product of labor. Only by labor, by adaptation to ever new operations, by inheritance of the thus acquired special development of muscles, ligaments and, over longer periods of time, bones as well, and by the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, has the human hand attained the high degree of perfection that has enabled it to conjure into being the paintings of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini…. And the sense of touch, which the ape hardly possesses in its crudest initial form, has been developed only side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labor….(1973, 54-55)
In their collaborative work, The German Ideology (1845-46), Marx and Engels already underscored the division of labor, in particular between material and spiritual, as the logic behind non-linear historical development. They suggest in fact that this division originates from sexuality: “The division of labour…was originally nothing but the division of labor in the sexual act,” one based on “the natural division of labor in the family” (1947, 20-21). The disintegration of communal labor with the ascendancy of private property engenders the contradiction between the three moments in the production process: productive forces, social relations, consciousness. This contradiction in turn intensifies in the fetishistic world of capitalist commodity exchange. While Marx also concentrated on the labor process in the Grundrisse, Capital, and elsewhere, it was Engels who specified the modalities of the complexification of work in accord with changing modes of production. This involved a movement of opposing trends that engendered common problems and enabled collectivities to set for themselves and achieve “higher and higher aims.” With the emergence of trade and industry, the pursuits of art, science, and then law and politics arose together with “the fantastic mirror image of human things in the human mind: religion.” Civilization appeared then as a product of the mind, not the working hands. Due to the division of labor (especially between mental and manual [Sohn-Rethel 1978]) accompanying class antagonisms, “men became accustomed to explaining their actions from their thoughts instead of from their needs.” The world was turned upside down, “standing on its head,” as it were. Realistic representation (one-to-one correspondence) is thenceforth impossible. The labor process then becomes the “political unconscious” of all art and culture, repressed and sublimated, expressing itself through the themes of conflict between form and content, synchronic and diachronic axes of change, essence (concept) and phenomena (immediacy).3
Like religion, aesthetics is one of the fruits of the alienating division of labor. From the time when Alexander Baumgarten in the 18th century privileged sensory apprehension of phenomenal beauty, the subjective sense activity or feeling, to Immanuel Kant’s categorizing of aesthetics as the inquiry into the conditions of sensuous perception, the subjective or consumption aspect of art has displaced any concern for the social occasions and contexts of cultural production (Williams 1983, 31-32). As antithesis to the instrumental or utilitarian, the aesthetic becomes a means of evading the relentless capitalist transvaluation of art works into commodities. As Raymond Williams recapitulates this fate of modernist aesthetics: “In its concentration on receptive states, on psychological responses of an abstractly differentiated kind, it represents the division of labour in consumption corresponding to the abstraction of art as the division of labour in production” (1977, 154).
Engels’ master-narrative of the multiplication of forms of labor informs his ideas on art and literature in general. It demarcates the specificity of the aesthetic as an expression of class division. In capitalism, aesthetics functions as an ersatz religion geared to compensate for the loss of totality or meaningful unity in life, a loss more precisely dramatized in the split between exchange value and use value and the consequent reification of lived experience (translated of late into postmodern “simulacra,” after Baudrillard). This sense of a totality that predates private property, classes, and the division of labor is later on identified with the typical in art, the interdependence of image and essence. In this context, the typical may be read as symptomatic of the lack of identity between appearance and concept, the difficulty of synthesizing the object seen and the seeing subject. In struggling to render what is typical, art as ideological form serves as a means of allegorizing the play of energies and forces that configure the historical milieu of class struggles (Balibar and Macherey 1992).
Engels’ often-cited “letters on historical materialism” all endeavor to rectify the positivist and mechanical-materialist construal of the formulaic “base/superstructure” metaphor in orthodox Marxist interpretation. Stipulating the historical approach as “a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian,” Engels pointed out that “the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce from them the political, civil-law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc. views corresponding to them” (Marx/Engels 1959, 396-97). Empirical investigation precedes theoretical critique of hypotheses, thus precluding simple reflectionism. In his letter to Paul Ernst (June 5, 1890), Engels accordingly stressed the heuristic or analytic efficacy of the materialist method.
This epistemological stance explains Engels’ view that one cannot judge Ibsen’s plays as flawed by pettybourgeois backwardness on the ground that the pettybourgeois class by definition is reactionary. Historically contextualized, the fact is that the Norwegian petty bourgeoisie, together with the peasantry, when compared to their German counterparts, embodies a progressive telos. Hence whatever the weaknesses of Ibsen’s dramas, Engels observes, “they undoubtedly reflect the world of the petty and the middle bourgeoisie, but a world totally different from the German world, a world where men are still possessed of character and initiative and the capacity for independent action” (Marx/Engels 1973, 89). Engels adds that in the aftermath of the Napoleonic reaction, Norway’s constitution was “far more democratic” than any in Europe at that time. The desideratum of historical specificity serves here to accentuate the tension between base and superstructure, to prevent the superimposition of a static blueprint on events or processes that exemplify the rich and inexhaustible potential of matter-in- motion. The efficacy of class analysis and political judgment therefore depends on historical specification of concrete (in the sense of multiple determinations) relations of forces, their convergence and divergence, in determinate times and places.4
Engels’ version of historicism, to be sure, needs neither apology nor alibi. What has appeared suspect for many is Engels’ affirmation of the “material mode of existence” as the primum agens which, nonetheless, “does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn” (letter to Conrad Schmidt, August 5, 1890). The most often-quoted passage used to illustrate Engels’ alleged doctrine of “economic determinism” is one in which ironically he takes great pains to emphasize interaction, mutual influence, reciprocal dynamics, even though economic conditions are considered “ultimately decisive.” In the letter to Joseph Bloch (September 21-22, 1890), Engels reiterates that “the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life”; the economic level or movement is not then the only determining one, even though it is the “basis” since “the various elements of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form” (Marx/Engels 1959, 398). This is not a revision but a clarification of Marx’s succinct formulation of the main thesis of historical materialism found in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). I think Engels’ nuanced conception of the interaction of relatively autonomous spheres (political, economic, ideological) is rendered in the following passage in which the ratio of agency and structure, consciousness and nature, becomes emblematic of the synthesizing power of the imagination:
[H]istory is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant–the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals–each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general)–do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it (Marx/Engels 1959, 399).
From what is now a characteristic Engelsian point of view, history may be conceived as an art form ascertaining pattern in the changes of velocity and direction of social motion. Historical movement transpiring “in the manner of a natural process”–this way of signifying it may evoke the objections of many commentators (for example, Colleti , Schmidt , [McClellan 197], Carver ) that it is reductive. The protagonists of the “historical event” become properly valued to the extent that multiple individual energies merge to constitute the whole. Sebastiano Timpanaro rightly points out that Engels’ accenting of the objective social and natural conditions surrounding history has caused others to accuse him of fatalism, Darwinism, an enemy of humanism and “freedom of the spirit” (1975: 74). But like his singular valorization of the concept of labor as a practical-cognitive activity, Engels’ ecological activism is indeed not a simplistic “realism” nor a nostalgic pantheism. Rather, it is a subtle and sophisticated empiricism premised on a recognition of the physical nature of the subject, the imbrication of human agency in natural history, and the collective drive for happiness over and beyond the principle of freedom as “the recognition of necessity” (Timpanaro 1975, 128-29).5
It is within this horizon of matter-in-motion, the dialectic of attraction and repulsion, of accidence and necessity, charted in Dialectics of Nature, that we can fully understand the lesson of Engels’ literary criticism and his astute commentaries on writers and artists.
In his letter to Ferdinand Lasalle (May 18, 1859) on Franz von Sickingen, Engels praised the drama’s idea content while criticizing the long monologues and the lack of differentiation of individual characters. Not characterization but the mode in which the dramatis personae who represent “definite classes and trends and therefore of definite ideas of their time…find their motives not in petty individual lust, but in the historical stream which is carrying them along” (1976, 103). What is decisive is how, Engels continues, “the action itself should bring these motives more vigorously, actively and, so to speak, elementally into the foreground.” Not what the characters do but “how” they do it differentiates them. Succinctly put, Lasalle’s failure is not a matter of technique or form; everything hinges on an accurate, all-sided grasp of the historical situation. In concentrating on the aristocratic figures, Engels maintains, Lasalle ignored the “non-official, the plebeian and peasant elements and their concomitant representatives in the field of theory” (1976, 105). This, however, can be valid only insofar as the dramatist aims for a tragic effect; for precisely the failure of the nobility to conclude an alliance with the peasantry doomed their “national revolution” inasmuch as that alliance itself was impossible. Hence the action of Lasalle’s tragedy organically lies in what Engels calls “the tragic collision between the historically necessary postulate and the practical impossibility of putting it into effect” (107), a denouement not formally rendered satisfactorily because of Lasalle’s lack of historical comprehension. Art, its form and effect, however, cannot be reduced to a problem of Gehaltasthetik, the correct ideological or cognitive judgment. This has led Stefan Morawski to believe that Marx and Engels downgraded form, style, and originality to an “instrumental” level (1973: 38-39) just because they did not elaborate specifically on those topics. On the contrary. Engels in fact argued for the relative autonomy of form, as shown by his remarks on Carl Hubner’s painting of The Silesian Weavers (see Rose 1984, 104-06).
I need not belabor Marx and Engels’ extended stylistic analysis of Eugene Sue’s Mysteres de Paris in The Holy Family (1845) (1976: 298-313; Winders 1994) nor Engel’s numerous observations on language and rhetoric in the German Volksbucher, chivalric love poetry, Goethe, Heine, Carlyle, Cobbett, Weerth, and others. What I want to discuss is the way Engels combined realism and activism, mimesis and commitment, via a discourse on the typical and the metacommentary on Morgan’s ethnography.
In Engels’ letters to Minna Kautsky and Margaret Harkness, the question of artistic technique or style (Is realism to be privileged as more “correct” than any other?) is, in my judgment, subordinate to a conception of art as both cognitive (critical) and ethical (transformative) in effect, both inducing pleasure of a specific kind. While Engels upholds the quasi-Hegelian view of individuality (the singular fused with the typical) in character, he contends that the typical–the purposeful or partisan tendency–“must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out,” the historical resolution being implied or inferrable from the description of the social conflicts (1976: 87-88). This notion of organic form, however, subtends a rhetorical purpose: by inducing audience/reader empathy, the work succeeds in exploding bourgeois optimism (i.e., any view claiming that the social order is immutable and transcendent). In this light, Engels considered the classic artists (Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Dante, Cervantes, Schiller) and some modern Russian and Norwegian writers as highly partisan. But their partisanship was not overtly polemical; it was embodied in the whole design or structuring of the artwork, with the didactic impulse immanent in the unfolding of the mimesis itself in concrete discursive activity (compare Lukacs 1970, 76-79). Engels tried to incorporate both realistic and pragmatic imperatives in elucidating the integrity of art.
Now this objective partisanship (Eagleton 1976, 1989) is precisely what is lacking in Harkness’ novel because it is, for Engels, “not quite realistic enough.” Despite its truth of detail, it lacks “the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.” Engels calls attention to the representativeness of the circumstances that surround the characters’ actions. The novelist’s limited understanding of English history accounts for her depicting the proletariat as “a passive mass.” Again, Engels searches for the seemingly organic disclosure of motives from the way characters reflect/signify the singular and distinctive tendencies of their historical situation (both in their presence and absence). This requires the submission of the artist’s intellect or passion to the demands of her material, this material possessing the same complex typicality as that fashioned by Balzac in La Comedie Humaine. And that is not because Balzac had a superior or more comprehensive abstract knowledge of French society; rather, his materials forced him, despite his reactionary political ideology (in the pejorative sense), to exercise his faculties of satire and irony “when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply–the nobles” (1976: 72). The typical then measures the disparity between subjective intention and objective achievement, between relative and absolute aspects of truth (for an analogous case, see Lenin’s  essays on Tolstoy).7
Realism for Engels, then, is a matter of rendering forms of social motion that convey the trajectories of lines of accidence and necessity. What Engels wants to insist is that Balzac’s scientific aptitude, not his humanistic commitment to affirm man’s integrity (as Lukacs proposed), redeemed the limitations of his politics. It enabled the novelist to penetrate the ideological screen of law, hegemonic business norms, inheritance procedures, etc., in the society of his time and reveal how “everything is upside down”; this mode of representation generated irony and satire through the displacing of inversions (Laing 1978). Contrary to Peter Demetz’s (1967) untenable gloss on Engels’ approach as “theological” and Messianic, I would argue that the typical is a symptomatic performance of the positive and negative effects of the division of labor, in particular the alienation of labor-power in property relationships. Life in class society is no longer transparent but opaque, highly mediated, enigmatic and extremely duplicitous. What realist artists like Shakespeare, Balzac, Cervantes, and others have achieved is not a theoretical apprehension of the unity of relative and absolute dimensions of truth, a passive reflection of the dialectic between appearance and reality–terms echoing classical philosophical arguments–but rather the dramatization of the play of social forces in motion, their attraction and repulsion, their complex interconnections and linkages. This play is encapsulated in Engels’ statement that “as all action is mediated by thought, it appears to him [the thinker] to be ultimately based upon thought” (1976: 65). In a sense, the demystification of bourgeois thought and its tendency to hypostatize life in motion, events, and processes–an effect of the division of labor–becomes one necessary criterion in judging aesthetic value (for the resonance of Engels’ ideas in the tradition, see Lang and Williams 1972; Craig 1975).
Before examining in the last section of this essay how Engels’ aesthetics finds an instructive figural expression in The Origin of the Family, Private Proverty and the State (1884), I would like to rehearse Engels’ central insights into the dynamics of ideology. I have already suggested that the primacy of labor and its ramification as critical transformative practice lies at the heart of Engels’ conception of cultural-ideological practice. It is completely false to ascribe to Engels a monolithic belief in evolutionism that negates the “subjective moment,” the creative force of thought materialized in production, industry, scientific experimentation, and so on. While the later works–Anti-Duhring and Dialectics of Nature, in particular–assign to nature “the same dialectic laws of motion” found in history (given the fact that motion as the “inherent attribute” of matter comprehends all changes and processes in the universe, including the activity of thinking), Engels qualifies the “historicism” of Hegelianizing “Western Marxists” by reminding us of the limits of human knowledge: “each mental image of the world’s system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator” (quoted in Mclellan 1977: 84). It is not Engels but his detractors who have forgotten that we still live in what Marx calls “prehistory” in which social organization and quotidian life itself, distorted by exploitation and mystified by commodity-fetishism, have not as yet been fashioned consciously and rationally by humans. Only when we have socialized the means of production and abolished class contradictions and the antithesis between manual and intellectual (including the sexual division of) labor, then we shall witness “humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.”
What stands out above all in Engels’ reflections on the base/superstructure orthodoxy is the decisive factor of the division of labor which has invariably conditioned us to think of effects as causes, of appearances as truths, and ideas as fixed and absolute. In the letter to Conrad Schmidt (October 27, 1890), Engels elaborated on the dependence of ideology on the split in the production process: “As soon as trade in products becomes independent of production proper, it follows a movement of its own, which, while it is governed as a whole by production, still in particular respects and within this general dependence follows laws of its own contained in the nature of this new factor; this movement has phases of its own and in turn reacts on the movement of production” (1972: 643). Engels illustrates the relative autonomy of various spheres (commodity trade, the money market, transport and communcations, etc.) and concludes with the observation that the assignment of functions generates sectoral or particularistic interests to the point where the state comes into being; relatively independent interests then react on the condition and course of production. Hence political power determines the economic movement which has established it and endowed it with a life of its own. Class struggle is then reflected in inverted form in the “fight for political principles.”
Engels then traces the multifarious interaction between state power and economic development, in particular the character of law in the modern state that seeks to eliminate contradictions “arising from the direct translation of economic relations into legal principles”: “the jurist imagines he is operating with a priori propositions, whereas they are really only economic reflexes, so everything is upside down” (1972: 645-46). Religious ideology serves as a pedagogical test case: not only is it caused by “low economic development” but also “by the false conceptions of nature.” This judgment applies to philosophy which, while belonging to a “definite sphere in the division of labor,” also operates on presuppositions handed down in history, so that the economic force can only act within the limits set by the given philosophic material, “for it is the political, legal and moral reflexes which exercise the greatest direct influence upon philosophy.” Engels urges a dialectical approach to complexify the notion of the division of labor as a law-governed and fructifying interaction of unequal but reciprocal forces.8
Although Engels bewails his inadvertent neglect of the “form” in which the mode of production impacts on the autonomous domains of law, religion, culture in general, the “internally coherent expression” of those activities testifies to the fragmentation of life-functions in class society. The fetishism of form evinced in aesthetics as a specialized discipline or field of investigation becomes the prime aspect of ideology in a capitalist system. Ideology construed as the belief in the supremacy of thought, in the transcendental and demiurgic force of reason, is one demonstration of the effects of the division of labor. In the famous letter to Franz Mehring, Engels targets the illusion of stability arising from the seeming independence of various social functions: “And since the bourgeois illusion of eternity and finality of capitalist production has been added to this, even the ‘overcoming’ of the mercantilists by the physiocrats and Adam Smith is regarded as a sheer victory of thought; not as the reflection in thought of changed economic facts but as the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere “(1976, 55).
A year before he died, Engels recapitulated the axioms of historical materialism already posited in The German Ideology (1845-46) and Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) (see letter to Heinz Starkenburg (January 25, 1894): the determining basis of history is “the manner and method by which men in a given society produce their means of subsistence and exchange the product among themselves (in so far as division of labor exists)” (1959: 410). While it rephrases Marx’s propositions on method in his “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), what is new is that Engels takes into account the techniques of production and transport, the geographical environment, the state, the level of technique, and race as an economic factor. He underscores the leitmotif of reciprocal interdetermination that subtends the base/superstructure dynamics: political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary and artistic developments (conditioned by production/exchange relations and the division of labor) react and interact on each other “on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself” (1959: 411). The leitmotif of novelty and contingency reverberates here because of the prehistoric fact that humans do not exercise complete control over the “economic” in a world governed by warring interests:
Men make their history themselves, only they do so in a given environment, which conditions it, and on the basis of actual relations already existing, among which the economic relations, however much they may be influenced by the other, the political and ideological relations, are still ultimately the decisive ones, forming the keynote which runs through them and alone leads to understanding….
Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan, or even in a definite, delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity (1959, 411).
What is rather provocative here is the way the superstructure (ideology, cultural practice in general) becomes the space of accidents and zigzag turns, of vectors running parallel but never really coinciding with the economic axis–a space of original creation, a borderland where something new, unprecedented, and revolutionary (the “terrible beauty” that W.B. Yeats once celebrated) can spring forth. This is then the distinctive field of the aesthetic as a symptomatic border marking accidence and necessity, the typical always dissolving into incommensurable fragments and the totality always evaporating into a carnival of floating signifiers that nonetheless betray intelligible configuration.9
This domain of the aesthetic is concretized in Engels’s cognitive and geopolitical mapping of the class struggle circa 1844-45, The Condition of the Working Class in England, where realism can be seen to function allegorically. In a masterly cultural hermeneutic, Steven Marcus (1974) has shown how Engels’s exposition of the urban physiognomy (buildings, layout of streets, demographics) of Manchester dramatizes the typical, that is, the convergence of what is accidental and what is planned, making the synchronic texture of geography symbolic of the diachronic unfolding of intentions, of subject-positions and social agency. This reading of the aesthetic (the missing community) in the text of political economy (where private interest predominates) is actually an attempt to discern the inscription of what Raymond Williams calls “the structure of feeling.” This is a heuristic concept meant to capture human agency that usually escapes the formulaic base/superstructure paradigm. In using the term, Williams writes, we are signifying “a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (though rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies” (1977, 132). In somewhat schematic fashion, I delineate the “structure of feeling” in the following remarks on Engels’s The Origin. In this transposition of Engels’ critical practice first instanced in The Condition of the Working Class in England, we can apprehend the aesthetic (in the meaning I posited earlier) as not only the space of the typical where we encounter the convergence of accidence and necessity, the coalescence of knowledge and power, hegemony and resistance. It also offers the opportunity for grasping the possibility of freedom and happiness of individuals-in-community submerged, embedded, yet preserved, in the alienating and reified forms of the monogamous patriarchal family, private property, and the bourgeois state. This dialectical process is enacted by historical specification and performed in the strategic analysis of lines of conflicting forces (residual, dominant, emergent as alternative or oppositional) in The Origin.
In the narrative plot Engels elaborates in The Origin to account for the emergence of class division and alienation, the dialectic of freedom and necessity is sublated into that of nature and culture. Based on Marx’s notes on the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s anthropological discoveries, Engels tracks the development of the monogamous family from the dissolution and sublation of earlier forms–the consanguine, the punaluan, the pairing, and finally the monogamous bourgeois family. What is significant here is not so much the way this organism perpetuated itself, but rather how the erotic (read: sensuous practice) has been circumscribed by the development of the forces of production.10 Where before brothers and sisters engaged in sexual intercourse, the advance to the pairing family required a prohibition of sex between children of the same mother: the incest taboo. Occurring in relatively permanent settlements of communistic assemblages, the rise of the matriarchal gens (what Bachofen calls “mother right”) from group marriage indulged by “vagrant savages” forms part of what Engels calls “the progressive narrowing of the circle, originally embracing the whole tribe, within which the two sexes have a common conjugal relation” (112). With the domestication of animals and the growth of a surplus comes “the overthrow of mother right” and “the world historical defeat of the female sex” (120). In the patriarchal family, “the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children” (121). Here we find a figure for the genesis of the aesthetic as the recovery of “mother right” in women’s liberation from male domination. It transpires via the negative: the monogamous, patriarchal family. Paraphrasing J. Bachofen’s interpretation of Aeschylus Oresteia as symbolic of the ambiguous progressive/regressive transition from male-supremacist class society, Engels anticipates the overthrow of the state (father-right). Maynard Solomon perceives in Engels’ account a prophecy of the “revolutionary restoration…of primal mother-child harmony,” the pre-oedipal “matriarchal brotherhood” equivalent to “the Marxist Utopia” (1973, 470-71).
Engels confronts the question of reproduction (social and physical) with a commentary on the patriarchal family, the space of “the very antagonisms and contradictions in which society…moves” (1981, 503), replete with allusions to Greek literature (Odyssey, the theater of tragedy). Uneven development and relative autonomy of the ideological, political, and economic levels are illustrated by the spectacle of slavery coexisting with monogamy–for the woman only. Euripedes’ drama, for instance, exhibits the subordination of the woman, the chief female domestic servant, to the husband. This family unit of civilized society is founded not on natural conditions as before (in the time of primitive matricentric communism) but on the economic, “the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property.”
Finally, Engels sums up his historical survey of family forms in a passage that epitomizes the laws of motion enunciated in Dialectics of Nature:
“The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.” …The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others. It is the cellular form of civilized society in which the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be already studied (1972, 129).
The historiography of Engels’ analysis of the genealogy of the state from the evolution of family forms provides the clearest example of how the typical, the unity of opposites, that underlies his notion of the aesthetic is textualized. Each genre of the family exhibits typicality in conflating both the spatiotemporal moment of its existence and the duration/continuum of its metamorphosis from past to future. The apprehension of the logic of uneven social development, the discovery that what was deemed contingent or arbitrary before was really an intended part of the whole design, constitutes the aesthetic pleasure of recognition.
In the final chapter, “Barbarism and Civilization,” Engels rehearses the vicissitudes of the division of labor: from the pastoral stage to the division between handicraft and agriculture, arriving finally at the stage of early civilization and production for exchange symbolized by the role of the merchant. The emergence of the state, the sign of civilization, is accompanied by production and products as “subjects of chance” subsumed within the immanent unfolding of necessity: “In the world of nature where chance also seems to rule, we have long since demonstrated in each separate field the inner necessity and law asserting itself in this chance…. The more a social activity, a series of social processes, becomes too powerful for men’s conscious control and grows above their heads, and the more it appears a matter of pure chance, then all the more surely within this chance the laws peculiar to it and inherent in it assert themselves as if by natural necessity. Such laws also govern the chances of commodity production and exchange” (1972, 233-34). Engel’s narrative registers the intersecting movements of phenomenal chance and totalizing necessity in history, an art form of typification that transcends mere inventory of sensations (naturalism) or unmediated, pragmatic didacticism.
Engels’ materialist theory of imagination thus supersedes the conventional bourgeois critique of taste, sensibility, or feeling. It should finally be conceived as a dialectic (Aufhebung as simultaneous cancelling and conserving on a higher plane) of the forms of labor (labor of writing, practice of sign-production) in its historicity.1 It attempts to resolve the effects of the social division of labor by reconciling the limits of class-bound ideology with the power of a utopian vision of communism (free and full development of all based on the community of goods; see Engels’ “Principles of Communism” [Struik 1971]).12 This resolution may be discerned in the constellation of synchronic and diachronic movements comprising the style of narration found in The Origin. The dialectical unity of ideology and utopia, for Engels, may be grasped in the monogamous family of civilization which articulates the internally conflicted route of progress by regress: “Since civilization is founded on the exploitation of one class by another class, its whole development proceeds in a constant contradiction” (1972, 236). Engels’ narrative technique in The Origin captures the contour and texture of such contradictory process, an imaginative strategy that demarcates the field of the aesthetic as, in W.F. Haug’s apt phrase, a unity of opposites: domination and anarchy, morality and immorality, the aesthetic as “anti-appearance of private property” (1987, 141).
In Dialectics of Nature, Engels maintains that “all knowing is sensuous measurement” (Solomon 1973, 48). Such knowledge connects end and beginning in The Origin: the end of a classless society where the division of labor is abolished with the beginning in “mother-right” and the communal gens. In essence The Origin stages a semiotics of reconciling the necessary trajectory of the history of the species with the ordeals and sufferings of individuals caught in the storm of passions and desires. This figural mode of integrating base and superstructure affords us a key to unlocking the puzzle of asymmetry between the “eternal charm” of Greek art and its backward social foundation addressed by Marx in the Grundrisse (1857). The asymmetry springs from the cleavage between material and intellectual production, the disparity in the forms of movement of needs and social capacities for objectification (Raphael 1933; Vasquez 1973). The practice of artistic production is, for Engels, ultimately an exercise of intelligence and active participation in radical global transformation, an exercise of apprehending the multiple forms of motion that sensuous practice assumes and one that embraces both the forgetting of history in alienated work and its remembering via the rigor of living with/through contradictions. In its hermeneutic of multiple forms of motion (both hegemonic and subversive) lies the revolutionary potential of Engels’ ideas on art and literature.
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The criticism of Engels’ “dialectic of nature” as a “pantheistic-hylozoic conception of a ‘nature-Subject’ ” has been succinctly re-stated by Alfred Schmidt (1971). In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs pointed out that “the crucial determinants of dialectics–the interaction of subject and object, the unity of theory and practice, the historical changes in the reality underlying the categories as the root cause of changes in thought, etc.–are absnet from our knowledge of nature” (1971, 24).
2 One example is Marck’s (1950) article which attributes to Marx the inadequacy of “romantic semi-anarchistic Rousseauanism,” among other negative qualities.
3 Practice is generalized by Althusser (1971) for analytic deployment thus: “By practice in general I shall mean any process of transformation of a determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation effected by a determinate human labour, using determinate means (of ‘production’).”
4 Terell Carver points out certain moments (for example, the article “On Authority,” dated 1872) in which Engels seemingly valorizes the independent power of nature over humans, as in the passage: “If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius, has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by subjecting him, in so far as he employs them, to a veritable despotism independent of all social organization” (quoted in Carver 1981, 61).
5 Antonio Gramsci’s speculation on hegemonic struggles betrays its provenance in Engels’ master trope of necessity immanent in contingency (see the section on “Problems of Marxism” in Selection from the Prison Notebooks), as demonstrated for example in Gramsci’s notion of “catharsis” as “the passage from the purely economic (or egoistic-passional) to the ethico-political moment” (1971, 366).
6 Engels adopts Hegel’s idea of freedom as the appreciation of necessity and elaborates on the aporia or antinomy implied by it in this passage from Anti-Duhring: “Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with real knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, with so much the greater necessity is the content of this judgment determined; while the uncertainty, founded on ignorance, which seems to make an arbitrary choice among many different and conflicting possible decisions, shows by this precisely that it is not free, that it is controlled by the very object it should itself control. Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature which is founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development” (1939, 125).
7 The most erudite attempt to account for both idiogenetic and allogenetic forces in the development of art is Morawski (1974), an ambitious project to construct an “integrated Marxist approach.”
8 Compare Brecht’s (1964) definition of realist art as one which, among others, emphasizes “the dynamics of development,” “laying bare society’s causal network,” and so on.
9 The Italian Marxist Galvano della Volpe uses as touchstone Engels’ “perception that the ‘median axis’ of the cultural-historical curve of a given ideological or superstructural sphere (e.g. that of art) is all the more ‘nearly parallel’ to the axis of the historical curve of economic and material development ‘the longer the [historical] period considered and the wider the [ideological] field dealt with'” (1960, 182-83).
10 This way of theorizing realism approximates Ernst Bloch’s notion of realist art as one that “strives to exploit the real fissures in surface inter-relations and [tries to] discover the new in their crevices” (1977, 22).
1 For Engels’ adumbration of the pleasure principle, one can point to his poignant celebration of Georg Weerth’s poetry radiating “natural robust senuousness and the joys of the flesh” (1973, 126).
2 I recommend highly Ted Benton’s perceptive appraisal of Engels’ contribution to the history of science, in particular his observation: “Historicity in nature is, in other words, the emergence, in temporal succession, of new levels of complexity in forms of motion” (1979, 124).
3 The problematic of the connection between ideology and utopia may be explored here. According to Fredric Jameson, all class consciousness expressed in art is “Utopian insofar as it expresses the unity of a collectivity” and all collectivities are “figures for the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopia or classless society” (1981, 291). Such an image of utopia, however, takes the individualism of atomized bourgeois society as the fundamental situation that needs to be negated when in fact it is only a symptom of the reification of social relations under a regime of commodity-exchange and its alienating division of labor.