Monday, November 28, 2016

John Bellamy Foster — The Return of Engels

Engels has been eclipsed historically by Marx, but his genius is now being recognized. Marx and Engels were not only collaborators but foils for each others ideas, and Engels made significant contributions in his own right that are being acknowledged. Although they made significant theoretical contributions and are often considered as "ivory-tower" theorists, they were both au courant and engagé. They wished to understand to persuade in order to transform Dickensian social conditions they viewed as inhumane if not inhuman.
But the real shift that was to restore Engels’s reputation as a major classical Marxist theorist alongside Marx was to emanate not from historians and political economists, but from natural scientists. In 1975 Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Natural History, openly celebrated Engels’s theory of human evolution, which had emphasized the role of labor, describing it as the most advanced conception of human evolutionary development in the Victorian age — one which had anticipated the anthropological discovery in the twentieth century of Australopithecus africanus.
A few years later, in 1983, Gould extended his argument in the New York Review of Books, pointing out that all theories of human evolution were theories of “gene-culture coevolution,” and that “the best nineteenth-century case for gene-culture coevolution was made by Friedrich Engels in his remarkable essay of 1876 (posthumously published in The Dialectics of Nature), ‘The part played by labor in the transition from ape to man.’”
That same year, medical sociologist and MD Howard Waitzkin devoted much of his landmark The Second Sickness to Engels’s pioneering role as a social epidemiologist, showing how the twenty-four-year-old Engels, while writing The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, had explored the etiology of disease in ways that prefigured later discoveries within public health. Two years after this, in 1985, Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins came out with their now classic The Dialectical Biologist, with its pointed dedication: “To Frederick Engels, who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted.”
The Return of Engels
John Bellamy Foster | editor of Monthly Review and professor of sociology at the University of Oregon