Rogney Piedra Arencibia is a Cuban Marxist, and a professor in the Faculty of Philosophy and History at the University of Havana.
Spanish speakers interested in a deeper dive should also check out his 2021 discussion with Jesús R. Rojo and Francisco Erice. 
God having power to avert innumerable evils by one small miracle, why did he not employ it? He gives so much extraordinary help to fallen men; but slight help of such a kind given to Eve would have prevented her fall and rendered the temptation of the serpent ineffective. I have sufficiently met objections of this sort with this general answer, that God ought not to make choice of another universe since he has chosen the best, and has only made use of the miracles necessary thereto.
— Gottfried W. Leibniz, 1710. 
It’s possible to discern a bifurcation in the theoretical history of Marxism. If we represent this history as a great tree that splits near the base into two thick, well-defined branches — which in turn have divisions and subdivisions of their own — this would not be far removed from the trajectories of the different (self-proclaimed) Marxist schools of thought. Both branches (or fundamental currents issuing from the doctrine founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) have received different names at different times and places: on the one hand “orthodox,” “Soviet,” “official,” “Marxism-Leninism,” “dialectical materialism,” “diamat,” etc.; on the other “Western Marxism,” “from the margins,” “heterodox,” “the philosophy of praxis,” “democratic materialism,” etc. To better understand this schema we should also note that these two branches aren’t merely separate, but in fact openly opposed to one another, and that this is how each typically views the other. 
This bifurcation often appears so stark that more than a few have affirmed that in reality there never was one single tree, but only ever two trees with entirely different theoretical trunks. A picture is often sketched out along these lines according to which the two historical founders of Marxism are represented as oil and vinegar, incompatible and mutually exclusive. In broad strokes, if we entertain this alleged “incompatibility” between Marx and Engels, it’s easy to discern the more or less continuous lineage of representatives of each branch:
the “Engelsian” heading from Engels to all “official Marxism” […] passing through Bernstein, Kautsky, Rosa, the Second and Third Internationals, Lenin included (although with the peculiarity of being philosophically Engelsian and politically Marxist); and the “Marxian,” which from the Marxism of the 1920s continues on into all of Hegelian-Praxeological Western Marxism. 
Truth be told, this “incompatibility thesis” — to give it a name — is more associated with the second branch, which developed by differentiating itself from “orthodox Marxism.” Georg Lukács’ work History and Class Consciousness (1923) plays a central role in this drama. Philosopher Lucien Goldmann for example claimed that it was Lukács’ “pioneering work” that first shed light on the “acute differences” between Marx and his inseparable friend.  What was the essence of this “radical” difference between Marx and Engels, that led to “misunderstanding” and dogmatism in the first branch of Marxism? Young Lukács explains: “The misunderstandings that arise from Engels’ account of dialectics can in the main be put down to the fact that Engels — following Hegel’s mistaken lead — extended the method to apply also to nature.”  Since then, the polemic surrounding the Engelsian idea has been constant. However, we should be clear that Lukács wasn’t the first to attempt to distinguish Marx from Engels in terms of the question of natural dialectics.  Lenin, in Materialism and Empirio-criticism had already warned against this tendency. In the first part of the second chapter he refers to Victor Chernov as the most transparent and “honest” exponent of Machist anti-Engelsianism:
the Machian would-be Marxists have diplomatically set Engels aside […] the article “Marxism and Transcendental Philosophy” starts off with an attempt to counterpose Marx to Engels and accuses the latter of “naïve dogmatic materialism,” of “the crudest materialist dogmatism.” 
However, it’s in History and Class Consciousness that we find, if in germ, the majority of the anti-Engelsian arguments inherited by Western Marxism. Recall that the author of this influential work presents the matter in the typical way: “Engels never really understood Marx’s dialectics and therefore he applied it in an incorrect and mechanistic manner.”  As Lukács himself recognizes in the preface he wrote for an updated edition of his work in 1967,
[History and Class Consciousness]’s most striking feature is that, contrary to the subjective intentions of its author, objectively it falls in with a tendency in the history of Marxism that has taken many different forms […] they strike at the very roots of Marxian ontology. I refer to the tendency to view Marxism exclusively as a theory of society, as social philosophy, and hence to ignore or repudiate it as a theory of nature.  
It’s here that “non-orthodox” authors find the source of differences between Marx and Engels. This is the case of Alfred Schmidt: “Engels, when he exits the Marxist conception of the relationship between nature and social history, falls into dogmatic metaphysics.”   More recently, displaying an even more radical rejection of the dialectics of nature than Schmidt, we have the “separatist” tendency of Argentinian Néstor Kohan, who also sees the root of the difference between the founders of Marxism in the “vulgar” dialectics of nature. 
The truth is that this issue of “Naturalist Engels” and “Humanist Marx” has become a staple of the various schools of “non-orthodox” Marxism. Because of this we see a marked tendency in many scholars of these schools that consists in treating the dialectics of nature as the “forbidden fruit” of Marxism, and Engels as the demonic serpent that incites this original sin which gives rise to everything “vulgar,” “dogmatic,” “mechanistic,” and “anti-dialectical” in orthodox Marxism. The young Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Gayo Petrovic, Shlomo Avineri, Lucien Goldmann, Marxist-era Jean-Paul Sartre, the second Roger Garaudy, Leszek Kolakowski, Ludovico Silva, Néstor Kohan, etc., repeat together with the Bible: “You must not eat of it or touch it, or you will die.”
In this theodicy  of Marxism, salvation appears to reside in the amputation of the filthy and “vulgar” cancer of natural dialectics, and focusing instead exclusively on the “true Marx” that supposedly wanted nothing to do with it. This effectively amounts to a forced “epistemological rupture,” in the purest style of Althusser, but not between young and old Marx, but between Marx and Engels. This separatist discourse tends to sound something like this: Marx is “the good guy,” Engels is “the bad guy”; Marx is dialectical, Engels is positivist. 
It’s important to highlight that this tendency of separating and even counterposing the founders of Marxism isn’t proper to bourgeois anti-Marxist thinkers, but, as paradoxical as it may sound, it emerged from within the framework of Marxist thought itself, especially the Western. As a result of the demonization of “official” Marxism in order to justify attributing benevolence to Marx, many thinkers in the “non-orthodox” camp proceeded to create images of a “praxical” and humanist Marx that sharply contrasted with “anti-human,” “Stalinist” Soviets.  In this way the theodicy of Western Marxism manifests not only in the rejection of Engels, but also and more generally in systemically reclaming “true Marx” from the Soviets, a pre-requisite for a genuinely benevolent and human Marxism. It’s precisely this aspect which constitutes a theodicy.
This theodicy characterized the way many Marxist thinkers approached their “appropriation” of Marxism. “Certainly the debate surrounding Marx has been constant, but more than knowing Marx there’s been an attempt to own Marx.”  In other words, the question of “true Marx” wasn’t — and still isn’t — anything other than a way to legitimize theories by alleging proximity and approval from The Master. In this way many authors present their ideas as the “true” interpretation — or even the very essence — of Marxian thought. For example Gayo Petrovic, who defends praxis as “an activity that creates the universe, creates the being,”   affirms that “this is exactly the interpretation that prevails in Karl Marx.” The question transformed, then, into what is authentically Marxist and what isn’t. This tendency is also present in young Lukács, plainly seen in the first sentence of the first essay in History and Class Consciousness: “It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality.”  
The typical modus operandi of this task has consisted in using various criteria to determine which of Marx and Engels’ texts espouse “authentically Marxist” positions.  Soviet Marxism, on the other hand, although also competing for “true Marxism” in the theoretical plane, didn’t beat around the bush: it simply doubted the authenticity of the Marxism of any thinker who wasn’t aligned with the communist parties of the various countries.  In reality this was the crux of the matter for orthodox Marxism, and the reason why the criterion of what counted as “authentically Marxist” depended on whichever position the CPSU was taking at the time, as Leszek Kolakowski explains:
[Within the boundaries of “orthodoxy”] you were a Marxist not because you regarded any particular ideas — Marx’s, Lenin’s, or even Stalin’s — as true, but because you were prepared to accept whatever the supreme authority might proclaim today, tomorrow, or in a year’s time. 
In other words, paraphrasing an idea of Malebranche’s, orthodox Marxism was in this sense such a “contextualist” theory that on more than a few occasions it veered into opportunism.  However, it was “non-orthodox” Marxism that most forcefully insisted on this idea of a “true Marx,” and this precisely because of its hostility to the Soviet Union.
It’s not hard to grasp the ideological side of the whole business. All the fuss Western Marxism makes about the “true Marx” is largely due to the fact that many of these Marxists were faced with representations (just and unjust) of “Red Terror,” both in intellectual and lay circles, in which Marxism was identified with “Sovietism.” Thus, Erich Fromm, in his mass paperback Marx’s Concept of Man, pointed out:
Another reason [Marx’s philosophy is so completely misunderstood and distorted into its opposite] lies in the fact that the Russian Communists appropriated Marx’s theory and tried to convince the world that their practice and theory followed from his ideas. Although the opposite is true, the West accepted their propagandistic claims and has come to assume that Marx’s position corresponds to the Russian view and practice. 
It had to do, and in many cases still has, with absolving Marx of any “guilt” for what they saw as the evils of the Soviet Union. Faced with the errors — and horrors — of “really existing socialism,” they went to philosophy seeking a theoretical account of that evil and how the “true Marx” could be so profaned — or redeemed. Not infrequently, Western Marxism became a crusade to “de-Sovietize” Marx.  Thus it came to pass that official or orthodox Marxism (Soviet-style) would be seen as simply a “betrayal” of the “true,” the “authentic” Marx. In this context, it’s no accident that anti-Engelsianism, in any of its forms, is a frequent fixture among many Western Marxist thinkers. One of the main reasons why they’re so associated is that Soviet diamat, which had become a veritable scholastic discipline, was widely repudiated by the majority of Western intellectuals as Engelsian: “Questions linked to the dialectics of nature constitute a well-known part of what eventually became codified under the term ‘dialectical materialism.’” 
Undoubtedly this was presented as a Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin elaboration, but supporting texts, constantly cited and paraphrased — not always aptly — were either from Engels himself or excerpts from Lenin and Stalin that exhibited a strong Engelsian streak. 
The consequences of this procedure are not hard to imagine: in Engels heterodox Marxists eventually began to see the “enemy” from which all the evils embodied by Soviet Marxism followed. From then on, implicitly or explicitly, Engels becomes the battleground of choice for the clash between orthodox and heterodox Marxism. Therefore, in broad strokes, when the latter attacks the former it almost always does it through attacks on Engels; and the former, when it retaliates, also does so through Engels. For example, Western Marxism has displayed a habit of distinguishing between the supposed “young Marx” (humanist, “Marxian”) and the “mature Marx” (scientistic, Engelsian). The first one is hyped up, the second one is taken down a notch; but always — take note! — in an Engelsian register.
Even more could be said about Lenin, who is split into the Engelsian Lenin (from Materialism and Empirio-criticism) and the Hegelian-Praxeological one from the Philosophical Notebooks.   This latter Lenin — according to some — waged an epic battle to the death against his dogmatic, vulgar, Engelsian former self.  For these reasons we can affirm without hesitation that Engels has been — and continues to be —  at the center of theoretical and ideological struggles throughout the history of Marxism. 
These theoretical wars raging over Engels tend to be fought along a few different fronts: the dialectics of nature, the theory of reflection, naive realism (pre-Kantian gnosticism), the scientific “character” of Marxism, whether he belongs to Marxist “philosophy,” historical determinism, and many others. In fact there’s such variety that it’s difficult to establish a common framework for what we could term the Engelsianist vs. anti-Engelsianist debate. Both Engels’ detractors and his supporters fight along these fronts, and combat doesn’t always come back to the same issues or in the same ways. However, perhaps one issue could play the role of demarcating and unifying criterion for this whole chaotic polemic. It’s, in effect, the one I’ve emphasized throughout this essay: the Engels-Marx theoretical relationship. Put otherwise, the disjuncture on whether Marx = Engels or Marx vs. Engels. What is in dispute in this fundamental, decisive battle front is whether Engels belongs — or not — in Marxism. This tends to be the departure point for all debate, from which other aspects of the polemic develop according to whichever author. Historically we find that in orthodox Marxism the tendency to identify Marx and Engels as one, dissolving Engels into Marx; whereas Western Marxism is typified by its attempt to split them, to even pit them against each other as incompatible.
As stated earlier, attempts to radically differentiate Marx from Engels are almost always based in critique of the dialectics of nature; but the issue cannot be reduced to just that. There’s also an insistence that their philosophical precursors differ. This way a “materialist-naturalist” line of thought comes to be, parting from Spinoza through Diderot and Feuerbach and into Engels, whereas a “critical-dialectical” one goes from Kant through Fichte and Hegel and into Marx. Another procedure to distinguish the two consists in reconciling their philosophies with various currents of so-called “contemporary bourgeois thought.”  For example, in order to reinforce the perception of a humanist, utopian Marx, his debt to the old German Romanticism and his compatibility with modern French Existentialism are hypertrophied. However, even in these two procedures it’s not difficult to notice that the question of the dialectics of nature still mediates. And generally speaking these are ad hoc procedures — i.e. adjusted to certain theoretical-ideological ends. Similar to what Feuerbach said of the Christian God, the various Marxes and the various Engels are projections of the “image and likeness” of the various Marxisms.
As we’ve seen, the question of the distinction between Marx and Engels by means of the dialectics of nature has an important ideological function. Keeping in mind that the purification of Marx for many heterodox Marxists meant his de-Sovietization, discussions about Engels and his dialectics of nature must have — as we’d logically expect — a political basis. And so the attacks against him aren’t limited to “substantially” separating him from Marx in philosophy or general theory, but his interpretations of Marxism are also frequently seen as (politically) reactionary: he is made responsible for the “cruelty and harshness of Bolshevism” and for the “essential conservatism of the German Social Democratic Party.”  In fact, for thinkers like Henri Lefebvre, the dialectics of nature served Stalinism as a “diversionary maneuver,” a curtain under which contentious social issues were swept.   In short, the philosophy of Engels is presented as the basis of reformist  politics that brings with it bureaucracy, authoritarianism, and alienation. 
As we can see, in the theodicy of Marxism the charges against Friedrich Engels seem to demand an apocalyptic condemnation, because he is made responsible, in the final analysis, of everything dark and retrograde about the practice of “orthodox party-line pro-Soviet” politics.  If all these accusations were true, Engels’ dialectics of nature would be something akin to the seductive taboo  every revolutionary must treat with contempt and distrust.  However, arriving at this point we stumble upon the paradox inherent to all theodicy. Supposing even half of these terrible accusations were true, why did Marx (the true Marx) not intervene, uprooting at once the tree of the forbidden fruit of the dialectics of nature, and with it the evil Engelsian temptation? Why do we not find among Marx’s works an Anti-Engels? If Engelsian dialectics of nature aren’t anything but a reactionary retreat, what do we make of Marx’s “diplomatic silence” and its harmful permissiveness, or even complicity?  Was Marx not manifestly intolerant when it came to theoretical regressions? We find quite the opposite in Marx: ideas and passages explicitly supporting the opinions of his lifelong friend. These difficulties force us to question the theodicy’s own premises: Are these supposed “strong” and “radical” differences between the two historical founders of Marxism even true? And, setting aside the opinion Marx himself held of Engels, do these terrible accusations against the latter have any merit?
Regarding these two questions — especially the second one — there’s so much material that if we started cutting now we’d have to stop more than once to sharpen our theoretical shears. But it wouldn’t be hard to show that “God” conceived of his (not necessarily third) theoretical world as the best of all possible ones; and this one, of course, comes with its serpent included.
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Jesús R. Rojo, Francisco Erice & Rogney Piedra, 2021-06-29. Friedrich Engels más allá de Marx. [web] ↩
The result of this is that many attacks come, directly or indirectly, from the opposing branch. For example, one might respond to accusations of “dogmatism” with accusations of “revisionism.” This way various pairs are formed: “vulgar”-“idealist”, “fatalist”-“voluntarist”, “stagist”-“messianic”, “naturalist”-“culturalist”, “ontologizing”-“phenomenological”, “scientistic”-“mystical”, “scholastic”-“opportunistic”, etc. ↩
Bermudo Ávila, 1981. ↩
Hoffman, 1977: 132. ↩
“The first to attack Engels’ philosophy was probably Stanislaw Brzozowski, and Max Adler as well made reference to important divergences between the two founding fathers” (Kolakowski, 1983: 398). Some authors affirm that even Bernstein pioneered anti-Engelsianism, but in a veiled or masked way: “I insist that, then, in Bernstein there is a theoretical anti-Engelsian current that does not become confessional” (Bermudo Ávila, 1981: 119). ↩
V. I. Lenin, 1908. Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Ch. 2.1. [web] ↩
Hoffman, 1977: 32. ↩
Georg Lukács, 1967. Preface to History and Class Consciousness. [web] ↩
Gramsci flirts with young Lukács’ position: “It seems that Lukács affirms that we can speak of dialectics only as it pertains to the history of men, and perhaps he’s right […] Surely Lukács, reacting to baroque popular theories, has landed in the opposite error, in a form of idealism” (Gramsci, 1981, t. IV: 303). Gramsci, though less stridently than others, separated the founders of Marxism along the same fault line, the dialectics of nature: “Engels […] left behind very few materials regarding the promised proof of a cosmic law of dialectics, and it’s exaggerated to affirm the identity of thought between the two founders of the philosophy of praxis” (Gramsci, 1981, t. IV: 303). ↩
1977: 47. ↩
The “Marxist conception” that Engels, according to Schmidt, occasionally is guilty of, is rooted in the assertion that “nature is only manifested through forms of socialized work” (1977: 54). However, he does not overall preclude the possibility of a dialectics of nature. ↩
2005: 46. ↩
Branch of philosophy whose objective is the rational demonstration of the existence of God by means of arguments, as well as analogous descriptions of its nature and attributes. ↩
This “positivist” accusation is typical of existentialist critiques of Engels. This can be seen in Abbagnano’s History of Philosophy (1974: 62), Sartre (1963: 173), Lukács (1970), and Goldmann (1975: 67). ↩
And not just the soviets: for example, early Althusser (1967) clearly represents anti-humanist scientism, where he sees young Marx as “ideological” and false, and older post-1845 Marx as “scientific” and true. ↩
Bermudo Ávila, 1981: 31. ↩
1967: 29. ↩
Compare this definition to Néstor Kohan’s: “Matter is not ‘reality in itself at the margins of man,’ everything that exists is the result or is molded by the transformative action of men” (1998: 87). ↩
There’s been dispute among those who wish to insist on dialectics as mere method versus dialectics as a system. Here I side with Isabel Monal, who argues that “it’s fruitless to attempt to demonstrate, as anti-Engelsianists have, that Marxism does not comprise a Weltanschauung; this cosmovision undergirds the works of both founders, although it’s more defined in the author of Anti-Dühring. Few themes in Marxism have been as manipulated as this by polarization of positions” (1995: 10). ↩
“With the passage of time, there has grown up an increasing multiplicity of re-interpretations of canonical texts and commentaries, several divergent accounts of who the founder (or founders) were, which of their writings may be relied on and which subsequent commentators should be consulted. In many cases, such issues have been the occasion of bitter controversy, and several schools of Marxist thought have vigorously claimed to possess the only authentic version” (Kearney, 2005: 185). ↩
“The logic was simple, if a foreign thinker was not a member of a communist party, he or she was not an authentic Marxist” (Kearney, 2005: 190). ↩
1983, t. III: 18. ↩
Žižek says that “each Yugoslav republic had adopted a different philosophy aligned to each powerful clique. In Slovenia the Frankfurt School ruled. In Croatia the Marxists of Praxis and Heidegger won out — to rise in the Croatian Communist Party it was necessary to master phenomenology” (2010: 13-4). ↩
Fromm, 1970: 17-8. ↩
Thus, for Néstor Kohan it’s about “defending Marx’s thought, defending Lenin’s thought, but from a perspective at odds with the official Soviet line” (Kohan, 1998). ↩
Kolakowski, 1983, t. I: 406. ↩
Bermudo Ávila, 1981: 171. ↩
Lenin, 1964. ↩
“Criticism of materialist-empiricist Lenin is criticism of ‘Engelsianism,’ and the effort to separate him from the Philosophical Notebooks Lenin — from the dialectical Lenin — is part and parcel of the reconstruction of a Hegelianized Marx, which is to say, to see in young Marx the key to Marxism” (Bermudo Ávila, 1981: 304). This observation foreshadows with eerie detail the goals and methods of Kohan’s later “effort” in Marx in his (third) world (1998). ↩
“Authors like R. Garaudy, and more recently N. Kohan, have objected to the relevance of the 1908 text, and upheld the 1914-15 works as illustrating a radical rupture” (Delgado, 2014: 20-1). It’s the Engelsian character of this “young Lenin” that bothers the “philosophers of praxis”: “Instead of accounting for this 1914 Hegelian turn, the Third International enshrined the old Engelsian theory enriched by Materialism and Empirio-criticism and above all by Stalin’s interpretations and innovations” (Kohan, 1998: 38). ↩
It seems that the resurgence of Marxism today isn’t free of this (nefarious) anti-Engelsian tendency. See, for example, César Ruiz Sanjuán (2014). ↩
“Engels is there in the debate about Kantian Marxism, the Bernstein-debate, in young Lukács, in Korsch, in Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism, and in Marxism vs. Existentialism” (Bermudo Ávila, 1981: 32). ↩
For Goldmann (1975: 112-5) there’s no fundamental difference between Heidegger’s thesis and the Theses on Feuerbach (Marx, 1973). Likewise, for that author, Marxist understanding of practice is equivalent to Derridean différance. ↩
This is the opinion of Shlomo Avineri and other authors, according to John Hoffman (1977: 132). ↩
Lefebvre, 1990. ↩
We should highlight that this accusation by itself doesn’t tarnish Engels, because he’s not responsible for the use to which his theory was put by epigones. ↩
“Kolakowski sees in ‘the philosophy of Engels’ the basis for reformist politics […] the misery of the workers’ movement. […] The other way [non-orthodox] is seen as politically revolutionary, because of it’s ‘Marxist’ base, which for Kolakowski entails, fundamentally, the separation of man from nature, and the reduction of nature to ‘socialized nature’” (Bermudo Ávila, 1981: 207-8). ↩
This is Miladin Zivotic’s opinion, according to John Hoffman (1977: 65). ↩
Of course this is nothing more than an inversion of the authentic nature in question. I delve deeper into this matter, especially in the Cuban context, in a so far unpublished essay “Critique of uncritical critique.” ↩
The “seductive” aspects supposedly trace back to Hegel. Lukács affirms that Engels followed “Hegels’ bad example” (1970: 38), and Kohan repeats the same idea (2005: 46). Colletti even affirms that Engels does no more than “a simple mechanical transcription [of Hegel]” (1980: 158). As Lefebvre put it, Marx was comparatively “prudent” regarding dialectics of nature, resisting the temptation, and never fully venturing into it. ↩
In the long run these philosophical discussions boil down to political positions. “Young (humanist) Marx” versus “Dialectical-Materialist Engels” is a response to the loss of prestige of Soviet diamat and bet on an alternative “humanist” revolution. Likewise, “the Marx of creative praxis” versus “Engels’ theory of reflection” favored political voluntarism. On the other hand, emphasis of the scientific character of Marxism dovetailed with bureaucratic Soviet Marxism, pondering “natural laws of the economy” and legitimizing fatalistic “stagism.” Whatever the case, the matter deserves detailed study, although the goal of this work is simply to highlight the political implication of “Marxist theodicy” and advocate for the fair theoretical evaluation of Engelsian dialectics. ↩
It’s well-known that Marx actively collaborated on many of the main works in which Engels set forth his natural-dialectical ideas, especially Anti-Dühring, where he reviewed the entire manuscript and contributed an entire chapter: “From Kritische Geschichte.” (Engels, 1973: 310). Very important, as well, are the rich exchanges they carried out in private correspondence (Marx y Engels, 1975). Regarding Marx’s acceptance of dialectics of nature, see Ferraro (1998). A much more exhaustive analysis can be found in Heinz Holz (2004). ↩