Remembering Engels’ thoughts on science and socialism on his bicentenary

Print edition : November 06, 2020

Engels studied the historical process behind the evolution of the steam engine, which was another factor that contributed to the industrial transformation. Here, a picture of steam engines on display at the Barleylands Steam Fair in England in September 2009. Photo: Nick Ansell/AP

Friedrich Engels. His attempt to find interconnections between seemingly disconnected phenomena in the life in England was his first training in methods of science.

Model of spinning jenny at the Museum of Early Industrialisation, Wuppertal, Germany. Engels learnt that the process of industrial transformation began with the introduction of the machine called ‘jenny’ in the weaving industry in 1764. “Instead of one spindle like the ordinary spinning-wheel, it carried sixteen or eighteen manipulated by a single workman. By degrees the class of farming weaver wholly disappeared,” he wrote. Photo: By Markus Schweiß/CC BY-SA 3.0

While studying capitalism, Engels studied science and history of science. The most comprehensive summary of his views on science can be found in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which looks at socialistic ideas in terms of an interplay between the development of material existence of humans and their thoughts.

In 1842, 22-year-old Friedrich Engels’ family sent him to its textile firm in Manchester for apprenticeship. Though he hailed from Barmen, a centre for textile manufacture in the industrially backward Germany, Engels was sent to the industrial heartland of England to get him trained in modern manufacture, business and management, and also to keep him away from the unwanted influence of revolutionary activity that had filtered in from France to Germany.

Engels, of course, would learn industrial and business management with due diligence and rigour, but “forsook the company of dinner parties, port wine and champagne of the middle class”, devoting his “leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with the Working-Men”. He studied the condition of the working class (a study that was published with the title “The Condition of the Working Class in England” in 1843 because of Marx’s insistence) with detailed field work, taking great care with numbers and figures, often drawing the sketches himself. Engels’ guide was Mary Brown from the Irish working class and thus he got to know a world full of misery and despair. He studied the working class life from various angles—conditions of work, use of machinery, destitution of the worker, the condition of women and children, the capitalists’ callous neglect of workers’ health, hygiene and education, and so on. Questions of crime, morality, prostitution and death from typhus epidemic did not escape his attention. While the working class lived in such destitution, the rich were amassing enormous wealth.

Engels’ attempt to find interconnections between seemingly disconnected phenomena in the life in England was his first training in methods of science. He did learn it from the life around him and it was self-taught. While making this study, Engels explored English life in the pre-industrial era and concluded that the village craftsman’s life was “comfortable in their silent vegetation, but for the industrial revolution they would have never emerged from this existence, which, cosily romantic as it was, was nevertheless not worthy of human being”, as “intellectually they were dead”. He further found: “Sixty, eighty years ago, England was a country like every other with small towns, few and simple industries, and a thin but proportionally large agricultural population. Today it is a country like no other, with a capital of two and a half million inhabitants…. But the mightiest result of this industrial transformation is the English proletariat.”

Engels did not miss that this process began with the introduction of the machine called ‘jenny’ in the weaving industry in 1764. “Instead of one spindle like the ordinary spinning-wheel, it carried sixteen or eighteen manipulated by a single workman. By degrees the class of farming weaver wholly disappeared.” The other factor which contributed was the steam engine and the popular view was contained in a poem that Engels quoted,

“There is a King, and a ruthless King,

Not a King of the poet’s dream;

But a tyrant fell, white slaves know so well,

And that ruthless King is Steam.”

Science behind the steam engine

The tyranny of Steam King was, however, part of the story. There was another side to it too. A few years later, the International Workingmen’s Association passed a resolution: “On the one side machinery has proved a most powerful instrument of despotism and extortion in the hands of the capitalist class; on the other side the development of machinery creates the material conditions necessary for the superseding of the wages-system of production.” This industrialisation process had been studied in detail by Engels. The following lines in The Communist Manifesto reflect exactly what Engels had written in 1843 in The Condition of the Working Class in England: “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjugation of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole population conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

In a later phase, Engels studied the historical process behind the evolution of the steam engine. It was an international invention, he concluded, as early ideas from France travelled to England via Germany. The science behind it would follow later, being discovered by Joseph Fourier, Sadi Carnot, Richard von Helmholtz, Rudolf Clausius and J.C. Maxwell, as Engels had noted. “Practice, therefore,” Engels observed, “solved after its own fashion the problem of relation between mechanical motion and heat.”

While studying capitalism, Marx and Engels undertook studies of several subjects, including science and history of science, with Marx taking up mathematics and Engels focussing on science. Dialecticians as they were, both studied these subjects in terms of their evolution and on the basis of their interconnections. In short, everything, including knowledge, was to be taken as a process and in its unity. Engels’ first sets of writing on these subjects are traced to his polemical work, Anti-Dühring (1872-76). He wrote this in reply to Eugene Dühring, who had put out a reactionary and distorted ideology condemning, in the process, the ideas of socialism. Engels took up this challenge mainly because of Marx’s urgent persuasions.

Also read: Interview with John Bellamy Foster | ‘Socialism a necessity for human survival’

The most comprehensive summary of Engels’ views on science can be found in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). It studies socialistic ideas in terms of an interplay between the development of the material existence of humans and their thoughts. Most interesting, it showed the limits of scientific advance that class relations would permit. Thus, the slave-owning class in ancient Greece had all the leisure to “systematise” existing empirical knowledge that were acquired by other societies but “Greeks had no empirical natural science”.

The collapse of Greek science was thus inevitable and “real natural science dates from the second half of the fifteenth century, and from thence onward it had advanced with constantly increased rapidity”. One witnessed not only profound discoveries about nature but also the emergence of well-defined ideas about materialism, owing to Francis Bacon, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Christian Wolff. Materialist ideas from ancient Greeks onward had no scientific validation on the basis of experiment, observation and inference. With the Copernican revolution, these would form the cornerstone of science. Further, in the realm of scientific concepts would now appear the idea of “universality of the laws of nature” irrespective of the observer. With the Copernican revolution, following notably the works of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, and later of Pierre-Simon Laplace, one could now be convinced that the same laws of mechanics held true on earth as also outside it; for example, the same gravitation could describe the orbits of planets and also the occurrence of tides in oceans due to gravitational field of the moon. There was no looking back. Urbain Le Leverrier’s discovery of Neptune, William Herschel’s collation of star clusters and nebulae, and Immanuel Kant’s suggestion of island universes beyond our own Milky Way were considered as big strides in materialism. Engels scrutinised them carefully. Such processes of discovery of unknown objects in the universe have grown multifold in the last century—as was hoped by Engels in his notes.

Beginning of modern chemistry

In the era when Engels lived, the Industrial Revolution had pushed science in different directions. Newton’s laws could describe motions of objects, but the steam engine and its power to convert heat into mechanical motion needed a new kind of science. One thus had to ask, “What resides inside materials, so that when they are burnt, they produce heat and the heat creates steam and the steam can push a piston?” This led science to go in two different directions. One of them was to understand the above process of inter-convertibility of different forms of energy, for example, chemical to heat to mechanical in the above case. Further, different forms of energy were found to be inter-convertible. The other was to study the science of combustion itself. It was clear that not everything burns and nothing burns without oxygen. The question would be, “What is so special in them?” That would mark the beginning of modern chemistry, based on modern atomism. This was pioneered by Antoine Lavoisier, Henry Cavendish, Joseph Priestly and John Dalton and reached a culmination with Mendeleev’s periodic table, in 1869. Engels lauded this great discovery of the periodic table, by saying, “By the help of the—unknown—application of Hegel’s law of change of quantity into quality, Mendeleyeff has achieved a scientific feat which can well stand comparison with Leverrier's calculation of the orbit of the still unknown planet Neptune.” The question was, why was this so?

For this, one has to look at the state that chemistry was in. In summary, chemistry was struggling to break out of alchemy, and engineering was struggling to come out of empiricism to find its own science while science too was battling against theology. They would bring materialism to a meeting point when it was recognised that heat was a manifestation of internal motions within matter, that these motions are always there irrespective of overall material motion of the object. With the discovery of the internal structure of atoms, the complexity of these internal motions in different scales would be understood, and electrical, magnetic and optical properties of substances would be explained. But that would be in the 20th century revolution in science, well after Engels’ death.

Engels had understood the importance of understanding the complexity of material motions, internal to matter itself. Though the diversity and complexity of these motions would remain an enigma for long, Engels tried to understand them or check his own ideas by making simple estimates, calculating from known laws of physics and chemistry, that is, “from the exact sciences, since here the quantities are accurately measurable and traceable”.

Science in Engels’ time had gone in several uncharted directions; for instance, the science of electricity was moving towards maturity. While noting these details and yet without getting lost in its maze, Engels asked the question: What are the points of unity? Where do they differ? Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, published in 1925 long after his death, teems with several profound questions, which could be paraphrased as, “physiology is, of course, the physics and especially the chemistry of the living body”, but also reminded, as Ludwig Feuerbach had earlier said, “Life is, of course, not the product of chemical process, nor in general is it the product of an isolated natural force or phenomenon, to which the metaphysical materialist reduced it; it is the result of the whole of nature.”

Evolution of Species

The scientific discovery that had a profound impact on Marx and Engels was Darwin’s Evolution of Species. That was the end teleology, that is, intelligent divine design in creation, they exchanged between each other. In Dialectics of Nature, which is a collection of Engels’ notes (taken between 1872-82), on natural science, the most profound observations are made in the subject of biology. While Darwin’s concept of Natural Selection, led by Struggle for Existence, looked at the dialectics outside the body, Engels’ questions concern as to what happens internally to the body.

Dialectics of Nature

Dialectics of Nature inspired many but had several critics. Critics dismissed it as it had no discoveries. That was neither Engels’ aim, nor his claim. His notes in biology threw certain fundamental questions, for example, if death is the dissolution of organic body, leaving nothing behind but the chemicals that formed its substance, then what is it that forms life? He further asked: What roles do proteins play in life? What makes living bodies synthesise their proteins? And how to understand these on the basis of energy consideration, given by fundamental physical and chemical principles? In short, these were some fundamental questions that would be addressed in the 20th century revolution in biology. Unfortunately, these philosophical questions did not appear in 19th century biology but were reclaimed by Marxists such as J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane and Alexander Oparin in the 1920s who addressed the question: “How does structure determine the function and vice versa?”

Engels’ essay, “The role played by labour in the transformation of ape to man” has been subject of criticism for following a Lamarckian point of view that evolution of anatomy is because of external factors. The point is that it was the dominant point of view in those times and Darwin too held similar views. The point, however, is that controlled experiments have shown that external factors do affect genetic mutations and could have played a role in the evolution of species.

Critics also ignore that according to Engels, man is not merely the anatomy of man. Man’s evolution is interlinked with social evolution, while anatomical evolution, which also involves co-ordination between the brain and the hand is also linked to social evolution.

Engels studied science at a time when science was transforming from a “collecting science” to “systematising science”, which also led to Marx’s discovery that the “course of history is governed by its general laws”. The exploration of these laws, science and its methods, the interplay between disciplines, would give the core principles of the dynamics. There is thus, “no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths, have the chance of gaining the luminous summits.” That is, “Where speculation ends—in real life—there real positive science begins; the representation of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of man.”

S. Chatterjee is president, All India People’s Science Network, and was formerly with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.