The First Marxist: an Introduction to Friedrich Engels
From the underground League of the Just of the 1840s through the First and Second International to the rise of mass workers parties at the turn of the 20th century, Friedrich Engels labored tirelessly to turn Marxism into a revolutionary force. Sacrificing his own intellectual ambitions to support Marx, Engels took on the role of sounding board, commentator, editor, ghost writer, and benefactor while the latter labored on his masterwork Capital. After Marx’s death in 1883, he spent the remaining years of his life in a race against time to organize, edit, publish, and popularize Marx’s work in addition to his own writing. As Marx’s closest collaborator and literary executor, Engels positioned himself the arbiter of theoretical disputes within the communist movement, a role which aimed at unification and standardization cemented their common legacy but also attracted controversy. In some readings, Engels was not only the first Marxist, but also the first Revisionist, opening the door to the mechanical and evolutionist interpretation of Marx that would divide the international communist movement. Whatever the case, it’s impossible to understand the gestation of Marxist theory and the history of communist struggle without reading and understanding Engels. But, what were Engels’ main ideas—on the origins of private property, the family, and the state, on class formation, revolution, and the nature of socialism? How can we understand his unparalleled contribution to early Marxist thought and politics?
In this course, we will survey the entire trajectory of Engels’s life and work in its historical context, focusing on his letters and single-authored works, including The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, his groundbreaking work on the interrelation of capitalism and family life; Conditions of the Working Class in England, with its unsparing picture of working-class life during the Industrial Revolution; Anti-Dühring, his grand defense of Marxist philosophy and political economy; and his controversial Dialectics of Nature, Engels’ attempt, derived from Hegel’s Science of Logic, to apply the method of dialectical materialism to the scientific study of nature. We will discuss Engel’s thought before, during, and after his collaboration with Marx, his role in the making of Marxism, as well as some of the lesser-known aspects of his life including his complex relationship to Christianity and his youthful commitment to Young Hegelian liberalism. Finally, we will address the charge of revisionism and ask: Was Engels’s late thought a departure, fulfillment, betrayal, or inevitable consequence of the Marxist vision he did so much to popularize?
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 18 — November 08, 2021