Engels: the enemy within?

Issue: 172

Camilla Royle

A review of Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, Kaan Kangal (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), £44.99

Was Friedrich Engels an “enemy within” who did a fundamental disservice to Marxism? Did he make a mistake by trying to apply Marxist principles to a study of nature, and did this therefore turn it into a dogmatic philosophy? This has been one of the longest running disputes among Marxists throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. As Kaan Kangal points out, Engels’s Dialectics of Nature has been central to these debates. Kangal evidently thinks it a contender for the most controversial Marxist book of all, claiming he is “not aware of any other work that has been subject to greater conflict and chaos”.1

Engels started working on Dialectics of Nature in 1873. He collected extensive notes on subjects such as electricity, magnetism and chemical reactions with the apparent intention of writing a book on these topics. Such a work would demonstrate that the kind of dialectical methodology that Karl Marx had applied to the study of economics in Capital was also necessary in making sense of the natural sciences. Although Engels produced several article-length pieces and two plans for the project (one in 1878 and one in 1880), he did not publish the results of this research in his lifetime. Instead the text was first published in 1925, some 30 years after the author’s death, by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow and with the title Nature-dialectics rather than Dialectics of Nature.

The debate over Dialectics of Nature has implications that go beyond what Engels thought about science; it is a political debate. This was particularly evident in the 1960s and 1970s. Several theorists, many of them associated with the New Left, were interested in Marxism but—understandably—wanted to break with the legacy of reformism and Stalinism. This led them to look for the origins of Stalinist ideas in the founders of Marxism itself. Often the conclusion was that Engels had introduced problematic determinist formulations that contrasted with Marx’s “humanist” emphasis on agency. So, Engels was to blame for what had gone wrong. As Kangal points out, ascribing any apparent faults with Marxism to Engels led not only to suspicion of Engels but to the converse implication that Marx himself could do no wrong—which is ironic, given that these thinkers were trying to avoid cult-like hero worship of Marx. The debate over Engels is sometimes said to have divided Marxists into “Western” Marxists who are dismissive of him and “Soviet” Marxists who defend him, but Kangal is rightly critical of these distinctions for their assumption that each label represents a homogenous group.

Both supporters and critics of Engels neglect the question of why Engels wanted to write on nature. Instead, they tend to assume that it was inevitable that Engels would commence this task because this was the direction his thought was taking him in, whether they think this direction was a deviation from Marxism or a continuation of it. Kangal, however, addresses Engels’s intentions in working on this project. He tries to let Engels speak for himself rather than interpreting his work through the eyes of the generations of later editors and commentators. Unlike other participants in the Engels debate, he also aspires to take seriously the fact that Dialectics of Nature was an incomplete work during Engels’ lifetime; thus, Engels’ intentions do not necessarily coincide with what the text actually does.

Crucially, Kangal argues that Engels’s intention was to make the thought of the German philosopher G W F Hegel familiar to the working-class movement. Engels and Marx supported workers’ self-emancipation, and so they did not believe that intellectuals should simply appoint themselves as leaders of the movement. Nonetheless, intellectuals did play an important role in providing workers with the tools needed to make sense of the world around them and their role within it. Hegelian philosophy was part of this.

Even though Hegel was part of an earlier generation than Marx and Engels, there was still lively discussion and debate about his ideas long after his death. Although Hegel is generally described as an idealist because he saw ideas as the major driving force of history, Marx and Engels adopted Hegel’s concepts but their approach was materialist. They jointly argued that the first premises of human history are the material conditions under which humans act and the way they organise to produce things to meet their needs. Marx at one point would even go as far as to state: “My method of development is not Hegelian, for I am a materialist, Hegel is an idealist”.2 Elsewhere he was more favourable, describing his method as discovering the “rational kernel within the mystical shell” of Hegelian thought. Engels similarly talked about freeing the “revolutionary” aspect of Hegel from the “idealist trimmings” in which the philosopher had presented it.3

Discussions of Dialectics of Nature sometimes emphasise the three “laws” of dialectics that Engels says he takes from Hegel: “The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; the law of the interpenetration of opposites; and the law of the negation of the negation”. Engels claims that dialectics can be “reduced” to these three laws, which can indeed sometimes be helpful in outlining the types of dialectical principles evident in nature. For example, we can say that when we raise the temperature of a glass of water, it is going through a quantitative change as the temperature rises. Yet, as it reaches 100°C, the change becomes qualitative as the water turns to steam. However, Kangal says relatively little about these laws. He rightly suggests that we should not reify them; for one thing, earlier drafts of Engels’s text actually present four laws, not three. In their recent book, Hegel and Revolution, Terry Sullivan and Donny Gluckstein show that Hegel never claimed that dialectics can be “reduced” to three laws in this manner.4

Rather than simply making his readers familiar with Hegelian philosophy, Kangal argues that Engels saw a need to overcome Hegel’s ideas on their own terms. In doing so, Engels counterposed his materialism to Hegel’s idealism and his dialectics to Hegel’s metaphysics—but was Engels really opposed to either idealism or metaphysics?

It is important to note here that Hegel thought that historical processes only occurred in human society rather than in non-human nature. He did recognise that there were once species on the planet that are now extinct, but, for Hegel, history is teleological, that is to say, it progresses towards an end point. This kind of historical process was not applicable to nature. Hegel’s approach is in some ways unsurprising because he was writing before Charles Darwin’s work on the evolution of species. Yet, Kangal contends that Hegel was not just unaware of Darwinism, but rejected the very principle of historical development in nature. By contrast, Engels was very interested in Darwin precisely because his work seemed to offer the missing piece of evidence that nature indeed has a history. Engels even made this point in his speech at Marx’s graveside: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” According to Kangal, when Engels says he is against “metaphysics” he simply means that he is against the “old metaphysics”, a tendency to try to treat things in isolation rather than as connected. As Hegel separated human history from non-human nature the vestiges of this old metaphysics might even be found in Hegel.

However, the more usual meaning of “metaphysics” is the process of asking questions about the underlying nature of the world around us that go beyond the study of the specific things we observe. For example, what does it mean to say that a thing exists or does not exist? If this is metaphysics, then Engels approves of it. Engels wanted natural scientists to ask such philosophical questions. Like all thinkers, they need to establish a conceptual framework through which to make sense of the things they observe. As Engels argues, everyone inevitably has a philosophy. Even if they ignore dialectics and adopt some other form of philosophy, they “are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy”.5

In terms of idealism, according to Kangal, Engels adopts “an ‘all or nothing’ approach: one adopts either the whole of idealism or none of it”.6 Kangal claims therefore that Engels fails fully to engage with and criticise Hegel’s idealism on its own terms, despite having aimed to do so. Instead, he rejects it outright, yet much of what he argues is compatible with Hegelian idealism. By this Kangal seems to mean that there are underlying concepts or ideas that unite all the specific individual instances of a type of thing. Engels uses an example that actually comes from Hegel: “We can eat cherries and plums, but not fruit, because nobody has so far eaten fruit as such”.7 Similarly, nobody has ever experienced matter or motion “as such” but we have come across different individual material things or types of motion. So, Engels is not only essentially in agreement with Hegel but actually borrows his examples.

The idea that Engels was not opposed to Hegel’s idealism is a trickier argument than the one about metaphysics. This is not just because Marx and Engels both made various statements about being materialists, not idealists, such as those quoted above. In today’s debates ecological Marxists have also often insisted that a Marxist approach should be thoroughly “materialist”. This tends to mean in the sense that, like Marx, we should start from real world questions such as how societies are organised and how they relate to the natural environment. However, Kangal follows Lenin in suggesting that we might want to consider ourselves materialist friends of idealism.

Kangal says little in this book about the extent to which Engels’s thought is or isn’t useful for scientific enquiry or ecological politics today; this has been the task of others such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett. However, in producing this book, Kangal has helped immensely in charting a path through the debates about Dialectics of Nature and in defending Engels from his detractors. He concludes that Engels’s work is a point of departure—one that we might want to return to, but also one that we should accept as open-ended and open to critique.

Camilla Royle teaches Geography at the London School of Economics and is the author of A Rebel’s Guide to Engels (Bookmarks, 2020).


1 Kangal, 2020, p2.

2 From a 1868 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann —see Marx, 1977. Quoted in Kangal, 2020, p109.

3 Kangal, 2020, p107.

4 Sullivan and Gluckstein, 2020.

5 Engels, 1987, p353. Quoted in Kangal, 2020, p160.

6 Kangal, 2020, p164.

7 Kangal, 2020, p164.


Kangal, Kaan, 2020, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature (Palgrave Macmillan).

Marx, Karl, 1977, “Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann in Hanover: London, 6 March 1868”, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, volume 43 (Lawrence and Wishart), https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_03_06.htm

Engels, Friedrich, 1987, “The Dialectics of Nature”, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, volume 25 (Lawrence and Wishart).

Sullivan, Terry, and Donny Gluckstein, 2020, Hegel and Revolution (Bookmarks).