Friedrich Engels

This question-and-answer session on Friedrich Engels’ major work Anti-Dühring, Part II on Political Economy,is part of the continuing study program by Anakbayan-Europa through its ND Online School. It is the third in the ongoing ND Online series on Engels’ selected works, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth.


Q and A on Political Economy (Anti-Dűhring Part II)

Questions by Host Anghelo Godino of Anakbayan-Europa, ND Online School
Answers by Jose Maria Sison, ILPS Chairperson Emeritus
15 November 2020

1. (Subject Matter and Method) How does Engels define political economy? And what is the opposite position of Dühring?

JMS: According to Engels:

Political economy, in the widest sense, is the science of the laws governing the production and exchange of the material means of subsistence in human society. Production and exchange are two different functions. Production may occur without exchange, but exchange—being necessarily an exchange of products—cannot occur without production. Each of these two social functions is subject to the action of external influences which to a great extent are peculiar to it and for this reason each has, also to a great extent, its own special laws. But on the other hand, they constantly determine and influence each other…

Political economy is therefore essentially a historical science. It deals with material which is historical, that is, constantly changing; it must first investigate the special laws of each individual stage in the evolution of production and exchange, and only when it has completed this investigation will it be able to establish the few quite general laws which hold good for production and exchange in general. At the same time it goes without saying that the laws which are valid for definite modes of production and forms of exchange hold good for all historical periods in which these modes of production and forms of exchange prevail.

(Anti-Dühring, II, I. Subject Matter and Method)

Dühring states his position as follows:

The relation between general politics and the forms of economic law is determined in so definite and at the same time so original a way that it would not be superfluous, in order to facilitate study, to make special reference to this point. The formation of political relationships is, historically, the fundamental fact, and the economic conditions dependent on this are only an effect or a particular case, and are consequently always facts of the second order.

(As cited in Anti-Dühring, II, II. Theory of Force)

2. (Theory of Force) What is Dühring’s theory of force? How does Engels refute it?

JMS: To arrive at his theory of force, Dühring hypothesizes that the cooperative relations between Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday, who are stranded on an island, can become oppressive and exploitative, characterized by Crusoe’s use of force against Friday. There is no apparent condition, motive or rationale why there is the resort to force, except as malicious will, which either one of the two stranded men could have. At any rate, Dühring arbitrarily blames Crusoe for committing the original sin of using force. And this is supposed to be the beginning of all subsequent oppression and exploitation in society. The implication is that the state as organized violence came ahead before the development of unequal and exploitative relations in the mode of production.

Dühring argues:

Nothing more than this simple dualism is required to enable us accurately to portray some of the most important relations of distribution and to study their laws in germ in their logical necessity.… Cooperative working on an equal footing is here just as conceivable as the combination of forces through the complete subjection of one party, who is then compelled to render economic service as a slave or as a mere tool and is maintained also only as a tool.… A universal survey of the various historical institutions of justice and injustice is here the essential presupposition.

(As cited in Anti-Dühring, II, I.)

Engels refutes Dühring as follows:

[T]he question arises: how did Crusoe come to enslave Friday? Just for the pleasure of doing it? No such thing. On the contrary, we see that Friday “is compelled to render economic service as a slave or as a mere tool and is maintained only as a tool.” Crusoe enslaved Friday only in order that Friday should work for Crusoe’s benefit. And how can Crusoe derive any benefit for himself from Friday’s labor? Only through Friday producing by his labor more of the necessaries of life than Crusoe has to give him to keep him in a fit state to work.…

The childish example specifically selected by Herr Dühring in order to prove that force is “historically the fundamental fact,” in reality, therefore, proves that force is only the means, and that the aim is economic advantage. And inasmuch as the aim is “more fundamental” than the means to secure it, so in history the economic side of the relationship is much more fundamental than the political side. The example therefore proves precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to prove.

(Anti-Dühring, II, II.)

3. (Theory of Force. Continuation) If not force, what then is the fundamental fact in human society? Is it possible for inequality to arise in social relations without the use of force?

JMS: Engels asserts that production and its development take precedence over the emergence of force as a means of social control. He declares:

In order to make use of a slave, a man must possess two kinds of things: first, the instruments and material for his slave’s labor; and secondly, the minimum necessaries of life for him. Therefore, before slavery becomes possible, a certain level of production must already have been reached and a certain inequality of distribution must already have appeared.

(Anti-Dühring, II, II.)

Engels proceeded to show how inequality can arise in society without force:

Historically, private property by no means makes its appearance as the result of robbery or violence. On the contrary. It already existed, even though it was limited to certain objects, in the ancient primitive communes of all civilized peoples. It developed within these communes, at first through barter with strangers, till it reached the form of commodities. The more the products of the commune assumed the commodity form, that is, the less they were produced for their producers’ own use, and the more for the purpose of exchange, the more the primitive natural division of labor was replaced by exchange also within the commune, the more inequality developed in the property of the individual members of the commune.

(Anti-Dühring, II, II.)

4. (Theory of Force. Conclusion) Dühring describes Crusoe as being able to impose his will on Friday with the use of a sword. What does Engels say about the sword and the will of Crusoe? What does he say about Dühring’s aversion to the use of force?

JMS: Engels takes note of the following:

Crusoe enslaved Friday “sword in hand.” Where did he get the sword from? Even on the imaginary islands of Crusoe stories, swords have not, up to now, grown on trees, and Herr Dühring gives us no answer whatever to this question. [If it’s just a matter of finding a weapon, then Friday might just as easily have become the master and not the slave had he found a sword first—or better yet, a pistol! (paraphrased by Jones in ISR No. 59)]

… So, then, the revolver triumphs over the sword; and this will probably make even the most childish axiomatician comprehend that force is no mere act of the will, but requires very real preliminary conditions before it can come into operation, that is to say, instruments, the more perfect of which vanquish the less perfect; moreover, that these instruments have to be produced, which also implies that the producer of more perfect instruments of force…vanquishes the producer of the less perfect instrument, and that, in a word, the triumph of force is based on the production of arms, and this in turn on production in general—therefore on “economic power,” and on the “economic order,” on the material means which force has at its disposal.

(Anti-Dühring, II, III.)

To make further fun out of Dühring’s silly society of two men, let me comment that even if Friday could not find a pistol to overpower the sword, all that Friday needed was to exercise his will, pretend to sleep and keep awake until he could grab the sword when Crusoe would already be in deep slumber.

At any rate, Engels declares that (as summarized in Jones, ISR No. 59): “Relations of domination arose … not because someone decided one day to forcibly enslave someone else, but as a product of material changes. The growth of human productivity, particularly with the rise of agriculture, both required and made possible a surplus that could sustain larger, more sedentary populations and a greater division of labor. The most significant division of labor was that between those who performed work and those entrusted by the society as a whole with guardianship over the surplus and over the maintenance of the necessary conditions of production. At some moment, however, these functions aimed at serving society at large were transformed into positions of lordship over society; the guardians and dispensers of the surplus became the controllers and appropriators of the surplus, who then employed coercive means, when necessary, to maintain their control.”

Engels berates Dühring for considering force as an “absolute evil,” the “original sin” by which all problems of society can be explained. He points out that force can also play a positive role, as “the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, that it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized political forms.” Engels scolds Dühring in the following manner:

It is only with sighs and groans that [Dühring] admits the possibility that force will perhaps be necessary for the overthrow of an economic system of exploitation—unfortunately, because all use of force demoralizes the person who uses it. And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been given by every victorious revolution!

(Anti-Dühring, II, IV.)

5. (Theory of Value) What is the Marxist theory of value? And what is Dühring’s theory of value if any?

JMS: Like Adam Smith and David Ricardo before them, Marx and Engels teach us that the value of a commodity is the average labor time embodied it or imparted to it by the workers. Dühring gives us as many as five theories of value: “the production value, which comes from Nature; or the distribution value, which man’s wickedness has created and which is distinguished by the fact that it is measured by the expenditure of energy, which is not contained in it; or thirdly, the value which is measured by labour-time; or fourthly, the value which is measured by the costs of reproduction; or lastly, the value which is measured by wages.” (Anti-Dühring, II, V.)

You do not have to remember all these five conflicting theories and be confused by Dühring’s too many theories which he offers like wild shots. He seems to hit the mark with one of the shots by mentioning “value which is measured by labour time”. But Engels points out:

In so far as there is a meaning in this, it is: The value of a product of labour is determined by the labour-time necessary for its production; and we knew that long ago, even without Herr Dühring. Instead of stating the fact simply, he has to twist it into an oracular saying.

It is simply wrong to say that the dimensions in which anyone invests his energies in anything (to keep to the bombastic style) is the immediate determining cause of value and of the magnitude of value. In the first place, it depends on what thing the energy is put into, and secondly, how the energy is put into it. If someone makes a thing which has no use-value for other people, his whole energy does not produce an atom of value; and if he is stiff-necked enough to produce by hand an object which a machine produces twenty times cheaper, nineteen-twentieths of the energy he put into it produces neither value in general nor any particular magnitude of value.

(Anti-Dühring, II, V.)

6. (Simple and Compound Labour) How does Engels answer the criticism of Dühring that the Marxist theory of value is inadequate and does not take into account the difference between simple and compound labor?

JMS: According to Dühring, Marx’s theory of value is “nothing but the ordinary … theory that labour is the cause of all values and labour-time is their measure. But the question of how the distinct value of so-called skilled labour is to be conceived is left in complete obscurity. It is true that in our theory also only the labour-time expended can be the measure of the natural cost and therefore of the absolute value of economic things; but here the labour-time of each individual must be considered absolutely equal, to start with, and it is only necessary to examine where, in skilled production, the labour-time of other persons … for example in the tool used, is added to the separate labour-time of the individual. (As cited in Anti-Dühring, II, VI.)

Engels refutes Dühring as follows:

Marx is examining what it is that determines the value of commodities and gives the answer: the human labour embodied in them. This, he continues, “is the expenditure of simple labour-power which, on an average, apart from any special development, exists in the organism of every ordinary individual… Skilled labour counts only as simple labour intensified, or rather, as multiplied simple labour, a given quantity of skilled being considered equal to a greater quantity of simple labour. Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made. A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the product of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone. The different proportions in which different sorts of labour are reduced to unskilled labour as their standard, are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom”.

… Marx is dealing here first of all only with the determination of the value of commodities, i.e., of objects which, within a society composed of private producers, are produced and exchanged against each other by these private producers for their private account. In this passage therefore there is no question whatever of absolute value—wherever this may be in existence—but of the value which is current in a definite form of society. This value, in this definite historical sense, is shown to be created and measured by the human labour embodied in the individual commodities, and this human labour is further shown to be the expenditure of simple labour-power.

But not all labour is a mere expenditure of simple human labour-power; very many sorts of labour involve the use of capabilities or knowledge acquired with the expenditure of greater or lesser effort, time and money. Do these kinds of compound labour produce, in the same interval of time, the same commodity values as simple labour, the expenditure of mere simple labour-power? Obviously not. The product of one hour of compound labour is a commodity of a higher value—perhaps double or treble—in comparison with the product of one hour of simple labour. The values of the products of compound labour are expressed by this comparison in definite quantities of simple labour; but this reduction of compound labour is established by a social process which goes on behind the backs of the producers, by a process which at this point, in the development of the theory of value, can only be stated but not as yet explained.

(Anti-Dühring, II, VI.)

7. (Capital and Surplus-Value) How does Dühring misrepresent Marx? And how does Engels explain what is capital and how it grows by extracting surplus value?

JMS: Dühring misrepresents Marx in the following words:

To begin with, Herr Marx does not hold the accepted economic view of capital, namely, that it is a means of production already produced; on the contrary, he tries to get up a more special, dialectical-historical idea that toys with metamorphoses of concepts and history. According to him, capital is born of money, it forms a historical phase opening with the sixteenth century, that is, with the first beginnings of a world market, which presumably appeared at that period.

(Cited by Engels in Anti-Dühring, II, VII.)

Engels refutes the misrepresentation of Marx by Dühring by explaining what is capital and surplus value:

In the analysis which Marx makes of the economic forms within which the process of the circulation of commodities takes place, money appears as the final form. “This final product of the circulation of commodities is the first form in which capital appears. As a matter of history, capital, as opposed to landed property, invariably takes the form at first of money; it appears as moneyed wealth, as the capital of the merchant and of the usurer… We can see it daily under our very eyes. All new capital, to commence with, comes on the stage, that is, on the market, whether of commodities, labour, or money, even in our days, in the shape of money that by a definite process has to be transformed into capital.” Here once again Marx is stating a fact. Unable to dispute it, Herr Dühring distorts it: Capital, he has Marx say, is born of money!

Marx then investigates the processes by which money is transformed into capital, and finds, first, that the form in which money circulates as capital is the inversion of the form in which it circulates as the general equivalent of commodities. The simple owner of commodities sells in order to buy; he sells what he does not need, and with the money thus procured he buys what he does need. The incipient capitalist starts by buying what he does not need himself; he buys in order to sell, and to sell at a higher price, in order to get back the value of the money originally thrown into the transaction, augmented by an increment in money; and Marx calls this increment surplus-value.

Whence comes this surplus-value? It cannot come either from the buyer buying the commodities under their value, or from the seller selling them above their value. For in both cases the gains and the losses of each individual cancel each other, as each individual is in turn buyer and seller. Nor can it come from cheating, for though cheating can enrich one person at the expense of another, it cannot increase the total sum possessed by both, and therefore cannot augment the sum of the values in circulation. “The capitalist class, as a whole, in any country, cannot over-reach themselves.”

And yet we find that in each country the capitalist class as a whole is continuously enriching itself before our eyes, by selling dearer than it had bought, by appropriating to itself surplus-value. We are therefore just where we were at the start: whence comes this surplus-value? This problem must be solved, and it must be solved in a purely economic way, excluding all cheating and the intervention of any force—the problem being: how is it possible constantly to sell dearer than one has bought, even on the hypothesis that equal values are always exchanged for equal values?

The solution of this problem was the most epoch-making achievement of Marx’s work. It spread the clear light of day through economic domains in which socialists no less than bourgeois economists previously groped in utter darkness. Scientific socialism dates from the discovery of this solution and has been built up around it.

(Anti-Dühring, II, VII.)

8. (Capital and Surplus-Value. Conclusion) What is Dühring’s misunderstanding or misnterpretation of surplus value? And how does Engels correct and refute him?

JMS: Dühring misunderstands or misinterprets surplus value in the following way:

“In Herr Marx’s view, wages represent only the payment of that labour-time during which the labourer is actually working to make his own existence possible. But only a small number of hours is required for this purpose; all the rest of the working-day, often so prolonged, yields a surplus in which is contained what our author calls ‘surplus-value’, or, expressed in everyday language, the earnings of capital. If we leave out of account the labour-time which at each stage of production is already contained in the instruments of labour and in the pertinent raw material, this surplus part of the working-day is the share which falls to the capitalist entrepreneur. The prolongation of the working-day is consequently earnings of pure exploitation for the benefit of the capitalist”.

Engels immediately tells Herr Dühring that Marx’s surplus-value is not just profit or the earnings of capital. It includes profit but includes other parts, such as rent and interest. He quotes from Marx (as cited in Anti-Dühring, II, VIII.):

“The capitalist who produces surplus-value—i.e., who extracts unpaid labour directly from the labourers, and fixes it in commodities, is, indeed, the first appropriator, but by no means the ultimate owner, of this surplus-value. He has to share it with capitalists, with landowners, etc., who fulfil other functions in the complex of social production. Surplus-value, therefore, splits up into various parts. Its fragments fall to various categories of persons, and take various forms, independent the one of the other, such as profit, interest, merchants’ profit, rent, etc.”

Marx also points out as one of Ricardo’s main shortcomings in his study of value that he “has not {…} investigated surplus-value as such, i.e., independently of its particular forms, such as profit, rent, etc.”, and that he therefore lumps together the laws of the rate of surplus-value and the laws of the rate of profit.

9. (Natural Laws of the Economy. Rent of Land) What are the fundamental laws of the economy supposedly discovered by Dühring? How does Engels make fun of such discovery? And how does he explain land rent?

This “fundamental law” discovered by Herr Dühring reads as follows:

Law No. 1. “The productivity of the economic instruments, natural resources and human energy is increased by inventions and discoveries”.

Law No. 2. Division of Labour: “The cleaving of trades and the dissection of activities raises the productivity of labour”.

Law No. 3. “Distance and transport are the chief causes which hinder or facilitate the co-operation of the productive forces”.

Law No. 4. “The industrial state has an incomparably greater population capacity than the agricultural state”.

Law No. 5. “In the economy nothing takes place without a material interest”.

Engel dismisses these co-called laws as mere platitudes referring to facts that have been known, recognized and spelled out by so many long before Dühring could claim them as his original discoveries. And Engels ridicules them as axioms that cannot serve as the foundation of the scientific study of political economy as previously proclaimed by Dühring.

He then proceeds to expose Dühring’s ignorance of English capitalist farming and his misunderstanding of the concept and theory of land rent:

… Herr Dühring comes up against both English farmer’s profit and the division, based on English farming and recognised by all classical political economy, of that surplus-product into rent of land and farmer’s profit, and hence against the pure, precise conception of rent. What does Herr Dühring do? He pretends not to have the slightest inkling of the division of the surplus-product of agriculture into farmer’s profit and rent, and therefore of the whole rent theory of classical political economy; he pretends that the question of what farmer’s profit really is has never yet been raised “in this definite form”, that at issue is a subject which has never yet been investigated and about which there is no knowledge but only illusion and uncertainty.

Engels explains further:

The theory of land rent is a part of political economy which is specifically English, and necessarily so, because it was only in England that there existed a mode of production under which rent had in fact been separated from profit and interest. In England, as is well known, large landed estates and large-scale agriculture predominate. The landlords lease their land in large, often very large, farms, to tenant-farmers who possess sufficient capital to work them and, unlike our peasants, do not work themselves but employ the labour of hands and day-labourers on the lines of full-fledged capitalist entrepreneurs. Here, therefore, we have the three classes of bourgeois society and the form of income peculiar to each: the landlord, drawing rent of land; the capitalist, drawing profit; and the labourer, drawing wages.

It has never occurred to any English economist to regard the farmer’s earnings as a kind of wages, as seems to Herr Dühring to be the case; even less could it be hazardous for such an economist to assert that the farmer’s profit is what it indisputably, obviously and tangibly is, namely, profit on capital. It is perfectly ridiculous to say that the question of what the farmer’s earnings actually are has never been raised in this definite form. In England there has never been any necessity even to raise this question; both question and answer have long been available, derived from the facts themselves, and since Adam Smith there has never been any doubt about them.

10. (From Kritische Geschichte) What is the judgement of Engels on the promise of Dühring to build the science of political economy on a new foundation?

JMS: Engels declares the following conclusively:

What, then, is the final result of our analysis of Dühring’s “very own system” of political economy? Nothing, except the fact that with all the great words and the still more mighty promises we are just as much duped as we were in the Philosophy. His theory of value, this “touchstone of the worth of economic systems”, amounts to this: that by value Herr Dühring understands five totally different and directly contradictory things, and, therefore, to put it at its best, himself does not know what he wants.

The “natural laws of all economics” , ushered in with such pomp, prove to be merely universally familiar and often not even properly understood platitudes of the worst description. The sole explanation of economic facts which his “very own” system can give us is that they are the result of “force”, a term with which the philistine of all nations has for thousands of years consoled himself for everything unpleasant that happens to him, and which leaves us just where we were.

Instead however of investigating the origin and effects of this force, Herr Dühring expects us to content ourselves gratefully with the mere word “force” as the last final cause and ultimate explanation of all economic phenomena. Compelled further to elucidate capitalist exploitation of labour, he first represents it in a general way as based on taxes and price surcharges, thereby completely appropriating the Proudhonian “deduction” (prélèvement), and then proceeding to explain it in detail by means of Marx’s theory of surplus-labour, surplus-product and surplus-value. In this way he manages to bring about a happy reconciliation of two totally contradictory modes of outlook, by copying down both without taking his breath.

And just as in philosophy he could not find enough hard words for the very Hegel whom he was so constantly exploiting and at the same time emasculating, so in the Kritische Geschichte the most baseless calumniation of Marx only serves to conceal the fact that everything in the Cursus about capital and labour which makes any sense at all is likewise an emasculated plagiarism of Marx.

His ignorance, which in the Cursus puts the “large landowner” at the beginning of the history of the civilised peoples, and knows not a word of the common ownership of land in the tribal and village communities, which is the real starting-point of all history — this ignorance, at the present day almost incomprehensible, is well-nigh surpassed by the ignorance which, in the Kritische Geschichte, thinks not little of itself because of “the universal breadth of its historical survey” , and of which we have given only a few deterrent examples. In a word: first the colossal “effort” of self-admiration, of charlatan blasts on his own trumpet, of promises each surpassing the other; and then the “result”—exactly nil.

(Anti-Dühring, II, X.)

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The original text source is taken from Jose Ma. Sison’s Facebook page https://web.facebook.com/joma.sison/posts/10223410261635399. PRISM editors corrected a few typos, made the quotations from Engels more visually explicit, and indicated a few quotes from an article by Brian Jones in International Socialist Review No. 59 (http://www.isreview.org/issues, /59/feat-engels.shtml ). The video recording of this session may be watched on Youtube: https://youtu.be/9sr2ZP8STyk.
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