On Not Defending Engels


Rosa Lichtenstein



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The editors of Weekly Worker were asked to consider publishing the following article. In the end, they chose to run an truncated version as a letter. Below I have reproduced that article in full (slightly edited).


As is the case with all my Essays, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago. The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.


Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism


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A recent article by Jack Conrad attempted to defend Engels's theory that there is a dialectic in nature, as well as reply to those who have thought to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels on this and other issues in Marxist philosophy.1


In 2007, Weekly Worker published an article of mine highly critical of Dialectical Materialism, to which Jack Conrad replied.2 I do not want to reprise that debate, except where this latest article of Conrad's impacts on any of the issues raised back then.


As part of his attempt to show that Marx and Engels were of one mind on most things comrade Conrad had this to say:


"Politically they almost formed a single personality. Some of what is presented under the name of Engels in the collected works comes, in fact, from the pen of Marx and vice versa. E.g., the chapter on economics in Anti-Dühring is written from material supplied by Marx (who helped plan the book as a whole, gathered other source material and read and approved the final manuscript)."


I have been unable to find anywhere where Marx says he "read and approved" Anti-Dühring; in fact, we know (because Engels told us) that Marx had this book read to him by his friend:


"I read the whole manuscript to him [Marx] before it was printed...."3


But, if Engels did in fact read this book to Marx (a claim he made only after Marx's death, it is worth pointing out) it would have taken at least two-and-a-half days to complete.


I have based the above conclusion on the following considerations: I timed myself reading one page of Anti-Dühring; fairly rapidly, it took me 1 minute 50 seconds to complete. Non-stop, the entire book would thus take approximately 13 hours 10 minutes to finish. If we add ten minutes every hour for toilet and other breaks (but no time for discussion, drinks, food or sleep), it would take 15 hours 20 minutes. Slowing down slightly added twenty seconds per page -- and thus 2 hours 20 minutes to the total --, bringing that to 17 hours 40 minutes.


However, Engels was a smoker and would have been slowed down by puffing away on several cigars, coughing, or stopping to light another. If we allow for an eight-hour day, and a couple of hours for food breaks, etc., then this would add at least 4 more hours, making the total now just under 22 hours --, or, slightly over two-and-half days of Engels droning on, and on...


Of course, an eight-hour day seems unlikely; if this is reduced to five hours -- surely a more reasonable figure -- it would have taken over four days to read!


Can you imagine it! One wonders how often the ageing Marx must have nodded off, not fully realising the nature of what it was that some would later claim he endorsed! Anyway, why read this manuscript to Marx? Were his eyes and brain failing him?


Moreover, since Marx had contributed a chapter, why didn't Engels simply ask him to read the proofs? And, it is rather odd that Engels never claimed this of any of his other published work, that he had read it to Marx.


More importantly, Anti-Dühring contains several sections on mathematics, which few other than die-hard-dialecticians will want to defend. Unlike Marx, Engels was neither competent nor knowledgeable in mathematics (as is relatively easy to show)4. If we insist that Marx agreed with every line read to him, then we are also forced to conclude that Marx, too, was an incompetent mathematician. Are supporters of 'the dialectic', who are competent in this area, prepared to admit this? If not, then the claim that Marx had this book read to him and that he agreed with every word can't be sustained.


In which case, if that particular idea is abandoned, a major plank in the claim that Marx and Engels saw eye-to-eye about Dialectical Materialism will have to be rejected, too. If Marx didn't agree with these 'mathematical' passages, but said nothing about them in his letters, then Marx's almost total silence about other 'philosophical' ideas that Engels was cooking-up in Anti-Dühring (and in several letters and notebooks) assumes an entirely new light.


Of course, if it should turn out that Marx and Engels did see eye-to-eye on Dialectical Materialism, that would in no way affect its validity; it would, however, seriously compromise Marx's scientific and intellectual stature.


Unfortunately, comrade Conrad doesn't consider the arguments and evidence presented by the aforementioned critics of the view that Marx and Engels were of one mind, just as he omits mention of several more recent critics (such as Terrell Carver), confining himself largely to generalities. There isn't much that can be said in response other than to reply with yet more generalities, so I will devote the rest of this article to examining issues raised by this attempt to defend Engels's views on the dialectic in nature. However, because of the limitations of space, I will restrict my comments to the 'First Law', the "transformation of quantity into quality."


Engels and Lenin had the following to say about this law:


"...[T]he transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa. For our purpose, we could express this by saying that in nature, in a manner exactly fixed for each individual case, qualitative changes can only occur by the quantitative addition or subtraction of matter or motion (so-called energy)…. Hence it is impossible to alter the quality of a body without addition or subtraction of matter or motion, i.e. without quantitative alteration of the body concerned."


"The 'nodal line of measure....'... -- transitions of quantity into quality.... Gradualness and leaps.... [G]radualness explains nothing without leaps." [In both cases, emphases in the original.]5


However, we are never told how long these "nodes"/"leaps" are supposed to last, which means that what is supposed to be an 'objective law' is regularly applied by dialecticians in an entirely subjective manner.


Even so, there are many things in nature that change smoothly with no "leap"/"node" anywhere in sight; think of melting metal, rock, glass, tar, plastic, butter, resin, toffee and chocolate. Here, the change in 'quality' from solid to liquid is gradual and not at all sudden. When heated, metals, for instance, slowly soften and become liquid; there is no sudden "leap" from solid to liquid. So, the "nodal" aspect of this law is defective.


Some might appeal to exact melting points as clear examples of "nodal" change; however, this is what we read about the so-called amorphous solids (e.g., glasses, gels, and plastics):

"Amorphous solids tend to soften slowly over a wide temperature range rather than having a well-defined melting point like a crystalline solid." [Emphasis added.]



"Almost any substance can solidify in amorphous form if the liquid phase is cooled rapidly enough...." [Emphasis added.]6


This must mean that "almost any substance" lacks a melting point if cooled in the above way. In that case, there are countless non-"leap"-like changes in nature.

[Notice, I am not arguing that there are no sudden changes, only that not everything behaves this way.]

This means that this 'law' can't be used to argue that the transformation from capitalism to socialism must be "nodal" -- which is one of the main reasons dialecticians give for adopting it --, for we have no idea whether or not this will be one of its many exceptions. Plainly, we could only appeal to this 'law' if it had no exceptions at all.

This in turn means that the whole point of adopting this 'law' has now vanished.

[It is important to add that I certainly do not believe that the revolution will be gradual; but then I don't accept this 'law'!]


Engels also forgot to tell us what he meant by "quality"; this means that subsequent dialecticians (again) regularly apply this law subjectively, appealing to it when and where it suits them, ignoring the many instances where it just does not work.


Of course, there are a handful of dialecticians who have made some attempt to define this term; here is what the Glossary at the Marxist Internet Archive, for instance, has to say:


"Quality is an aspect of something by which it is what it is and not something else and reflects that which is stable amidst variation. Quantity is an aspect of something which may change (become more or less) without the thing thereby becoming something else.


"Thus, if something changes to an extent that it is no longer the same kind of thing, this is a 'qualitative change'...." [Emphases added.]7

Unfortunately, given this definition, many of the examples to which dialecticians themselves appeal (to illustrate this 'law') actually fail to do so.

For instance, their most hackneyed example is water turning to ice or steam, when cooled or heated. But, given the above definition this wouldn't in fact be an example of qualitative change, since water as a solid, liquid, or gas is still H
2O -- no "new kind of thing" has emerged. Quantitative addition or subtraction of energy doesn't result in a qualitative change of the required sort; nothing substantially new has emerged. Indeed, when heated beyond its melting point, iron remains iron -- even as a liquid; the same goes for all the other elements. Liquid nitrogen is no less nitrogen than its gaseous or solid forms are.


Furthermore, countless substances exist in a solid, liquid, or gaseous state, so this can't be what makes each of them "what it is and not something else". What makes lead, for instance, lead is its atomic structure, and that remains the same whether or not this metal exists in a solid or liquid form. As such, it remains "the same kind of thing."


Another widely quoted example is Mendeleyev's Table. However, Lenin had this to say:


"What distinguishes the dialectical transition from the undialectical transition? The leap. The contradiction. The interruption of gradualness...." [Emphasis added.]8


But, that doesn't happen in this case. Between each element in the table there is no gradual increase in sub-atomic particles leading to a sudden change; there are only sudden changes as they are added! For example, as one proton and one electron are added to hydrogen, it suddenly changes into helium. Hydrogen doesn't slowly alter and then suddenly "leap" and become helium. The same is true of every other element in the Periodic Table. In that case, one of the best examples used to illustrate this 'law' in fact refutes it! Between the elements there is no "interruption [in] gradualness".


This isn't a minor point either; as Lenin notes, this is precisely what distinguishes "the dialectical transition from the undialectical transition".


Hence, Engels's First 'Law' is either defective from beginning to end, or it is hopelessly vague and confused. In which case, it is of no use in helping advance revolutionary theory, and so has no role to play in changing society.

High time we ditched it.




1.  Weekly Worker 1057, 07/05/2015


2. My earlier article is accessible here:  http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/688/has-history-refuted-dialectics/


Jack Conrad's reply: http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/711/marxist-thinking-and-newtonian-parallels/


My subsequent response: http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/Conrad_Heart_Of_Darkness.htm


3. Anti-Dühring, 1885 Preface, MECW Volume 25, p.9.


4. On that, see the following article, written by Jan van Heijenoort: http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/Heijenoort.htm


I have also covered this topic, here: http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/page 07.htm#Mathematics


[The above page takes a few seconds to load properly because of the many YouTube videos it has embedded in it.]


5. Engels, Dialectics of Nature: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch02.htm


Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/cons-logic/ch01.htm


6. http://tinyurl.com/plcu88p


7. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/help/glossary.htm#quality


8. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/cons-lect/ch03.htm


9. More details can be found here: http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/page 07.htm



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