[Discussion Article] The Second Thoughts of Engels on the State

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh

The writings of Engels on the state exhibit ambiguities, some of which have curiously escaped notice, but Marxist thought can ill afford to ignore them – Editors

From early in his revolutionary career, Marx insisted that the transformation he was working towards entailed the creation of a society without a state. In The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) he wrote that, in the classless community which a workers’ revolution would lead to, “there will be no more political power properly so-called”.[1] The Communist Manifesto envisaged that, in such a revolution, “the public power will lose its political character”.[2] In the 1870s the experience of the Paris Commune and arguments with anarchism brought the question to the fore again. Marx insisted that the workers’ state would take “a revolutionary and transient form”,[3] and “when class rule has disappeared there [will] be no state”.[4] With the abolition of classes, maintained a pamphlet by himself and Engels, “the power of the state… disappears”.[5] Engels wrote that this was a general view: “All socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution”.[6]

Their point was simultaneously clear and vague: “ambivalent”, as Hal Draper described it.[7] The final destination was a stateless society, but when and how a revolution would get there was left unstated. In a sense it had to be, because so much would depend on the specific economic and political circumstances a revolution faced, and these could hardly be forecast in advance. But to see the vanishing of the state as a distant prospect stretching far beyond the initial overthrow of the capitalist class would seem to be at least one legitimate interpretation of their thoughts.

On occasion, however, Engels suggested a shorter timeframe. At one point he claims that “with the introduction of the socialist order of society, the state will dissolve of itself and disappear”.[8] This could be referring to a fully-fledged socialist order, but talking of its “introduction” implies that the process gets underway more or less immediately. Elsewhere he writes: “We, on the contrary, say: Abolish capital, the appropriation of all the means of production by the few, and the state will fall of itself.”[9] Here it appears that the end of the state is nigh as soon as the revolution begins. In both cases Engels sees the state departing automatically, “of itself”.

This was how matters stood when Engels decided to take on Eugen Dühring.


The tedious Dühring

When German academic Eugen Dühring announced his adhesion to socialism, some prominent figures in the movement there were favorably impressed. Engels was alarmed, however, that Dühring’s claims to be placing socialism on a higher plane made only for confused and confusing politics. He felt himself forced to “drop everything else and break a lance with the tedious Dühring”.[10] He began a series of articles for the Berlin socialist paper Vorwärts! criticizing Dühring at length, which appeared from January 1877 to July 1878. They were published then as the book Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (often known by the far duller title Anti-Dühring).

The great value of the polemic lies not so much in its refutations of the long-forgotten Dühring, but that it led Engels to put forward his own point of view against his, elaborating a socialist attitude to a whole range of issues. The role of the state and its future was one such. When the working class brings private property into state ownership, he wrote, “it abolishes itself as a proletariat, along with all class differences and class antagonisms, and with that the state as state also”. This casts the state in a different role:

The first act by which the state truly comes forward as the representative of the whole society—taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—is at the same time its last act as state. In place of the governing of persons comes the administration of things and the direction of production processes. The free society can have no use for and cannot tolerate any “state” between itself and its members. It is in this light that the catchphrase about the “free state” is to be judged, both in terms of its agitational justification for the time being, and its ultimate scientific insufficiency.[11]

The state’s takeover of the economy features here as its swansong. The politics of state gives way to technical direction. The whole concept of a state becomes a pointless and intolerable burden. While Engels wasn’t going to fall out with the German socialist movement for adopting the objective of a “free state” in its program, against his own and Marx’s objections,[12] he made clear that it really made no sense as a demand. This tallies with Engels’s earlier remarks where the state makes an early exit from the stage.

Three chapters from Engels’s series against Dühring were translated into French in 1880 as Utopian Socialism and Scientific Socialism, with Engels expanding on some sections. The passage mentioned above on the state remained substantially the same. The phrase “can have no use for and” was dropped from the sentence on the free society’s attitude to a state. The final sentence, on the “free state” slogan, was removed altogether.[13] He probably considered that this reference to a debate within the German socialist movement would mean little to a French audience. Similar consideration for French sensibilities may explain the excision of an earlier paragraph disparaging the “kind of eclectic average socialism, which has in fact ruled up to now in the heads of most socialist workers in France and England”.[14] At the end of the pamphlet Engels added a schematic summary of the progress from feudalism to socialism, when “The political authority of the State disappears along with the social anarchy of production.”[15]


Thoroughly gone over

In 1882 a proposal was made to publish the pamphlet in German. Although it was originally extracted from a German work, as it turned out the publication involved more than merely printing the original sections of the polemic against Dühring. Engels made additions throughout, mostly minor clarifications or stylistic improvements. He took his time with the third part of the pamphlet especially, “so that this, the most difficult section, can be thoroughly gone over again”.[16]The title became The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science, and it appeared at the end of the year.

His most important change in the text appears to have gone completely unnoticed. The passage on the state taking ownership of the economy now read differently:

The first act by which the state truly comes forward as the representative of the whole society—taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—is at the same time its last independent act as state. The intervention of a state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another and then goes to sleep by itself. In place of the governing of persons comes the administration of things and the direction of production processes. The state is not “abolished”, it dies out. It is in this light that the catchphrase about the “free state” is to be judged, both in terms of its agitational justification for the time being, and its ultimate scientific insufficiency; and in this light too the demand of the so-called anarchists that the state should be abolished overnight.[17]

Taking over means of production is now the state’s last “independent” act—with further acts in a subsidiary role presumably still ahead of it. The state gradually nods off or fizzles out of its own accord.[18] No longer is the intrusion of any state power intolerable for a free society. Actively deciding to get rid of the state is decried in favor of allowing it to die a natural death. Those who are in a particular hurry to get rid of it are expressly condemned.

There is a clear shift here from a more ‘libertarian’ view of the state’s fate to a more ‘statist’ view. Engels presents the state as less of an evil in 1882 than he did in 1878 or 1880, envisages a longer post-revolutionary existence for it, and explicitly argues against a strategy of actively seeking to sweep it away. While an earlier sentence in the same paragraph still maintains that the working class “abolishes… the state as state”, the later addition flatly contradicts that.

The specific reason for Engels changing what he wrote about the state can only be speculated on, but it might have had something to do with Johann Most. As a parliamentary deputy in the German social democratic party, Most had been one of Duhring’s staunchest supporters, and led an attempt to halt publication of Engels’s polemic against him. As Engels was revising his text in 1882 he happened to recall “the unpleasantness occasioned by Most’s protests against Dühring”.[19]In the meantime Most had embraced anarchism and been expelled from the party. Engels may have felt a need to push against any possible sympathy in the German socialist movement for “so-called anarchists”.

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (as Engels dubbed it in English) has gone on to be among the most influential texts of Marxist thought. Only ten years after revising it for German publication, its author could boast of selling 20,000 copies of that version (despite anti-socialist legislation in Germany), and translations to ten other languages—more than the Communist Manifesto or Capital, making it probably the most widely circulating socialist work of the time.[20] It has featured in the political education of generations of Marxists since, for the very good reason that it offers a lively and accessible overview of socialist politics, full of the confidence born of a growing movement.

But it is curious that the way Engels changed his text has been kept quiet. Scholarly editions of Marx and Engels usually track additions, cuts and modifications in various editions of their texts, with footnotes allowing the reader to see how a work developed over the years. This is not done with Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, however. In both the German-language Werke and the English-language Collected Works, the footnotes confine themselves to highlighting minor changes in translation, neglecting to note the substantial changes Engels introduced in his own text.[21] This was brought home to me when I was translating a selection of Engels’s works into Irish for the bicentennial of his birth.[22] Going back as far as possible to original texts to translate from, and showing differences between various versions, in the case of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific I was forced to go through and compare them myself, noting the variations in full: the first time, as far as I know, that such work has been undertaken.

In 1885 Engels incorporated his changes into a new edition of Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. This too has become a significant text of Marxist thought over the years. English-speaking readers have often read it in a translation which stretched the dying out of the state (er stirbt ab) to mean “it withers away”.[23] This phrase has also sometimes crept into translations of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific itself, in preference to the version that Engels personally approved.[24] Withering away is, if anything, an even slower process than dying out, and seems to push the demise of the state further back. Again, Engels’s revision of the book’s discussion on the disappearance of the state has gone untraced.[25] In expanding the text of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific further in 1891, Engels gave some idea of what he had modified[26]—something he never did in relation to his earlier change regarding the state. As late as 1924, however, the pamphlet was being published in French in the unchanged text of the 1880 edition, allowing readers to see what Engels had originally written.[27]



Engels said in the preface to the second edition of his work against Dühring that it was written with Marx’s tacit agreement, and “I read the whole manuscript to him before it was printed”.[28] Why it would have to be read to someone still capable of voracious reading for himself is unclear. Moreover, given that the work was published in serial form over a period of two years, there wouldn’t have been a single manuscript to read, nor has one survived. A claim that Marx explicitly endorsed every dot or comma that Engels wrote would be ludicrous in any event, but the same could be said of a claim that he fundamentally disagreed with the overall thrust of Engels’s polemic.

As far as the passage on the disappearance of the state is concerned, the original version is all that Marx would have been aware of. He would have read it in Vorwärts! (or had it read to him), and could read it in French translation in Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique, for which he anonymously contributed a preface on Engels’s previous activity. When Engels came to revise the text for the German version in late 1882, Marx was ill and spent most of that period away in France or the Isle of Wight. As a result, more letters between himself and Engels survive from 1882 than any other year since the latter moved to London in 1870. None of these letters discuss or even mention Engels’s revision of the pamphlet, however. A week before Marx’s death Engels was complaining of “a scandalous delay” in getting a copy of it,[29] so it is unlikely Marx ever set eyes upon it.

In a well-known essay on Marx from 1915 Lenin quotes the passage discussed here—in its later version, obviously.[30]The precedent of quoting Engels to explain Marx has often been followed, but is particularly unfair when the quotation is one that Marx could never possibly have come across. The fact that Marx and Engels were on the same page politically is obvious to anyone reading their work, but exploring differences in their views, approaches, and even emphases is a valid and necessary part of understanding their individual and joint contributions to socialist thought.


Engels and the state

This was far from Engels’s last word on the matter. In April 1883 he wrote that “one of the final results of the future proletarian revolution will be the gradual dissolution and ultimate disappearance of the political organisation called the State”. This statement was made as a direct refutation of attempts by Johann Most to claim the mantle of Marx.[31] Its similarity to what Engels introduced into Socialism: Utopian and Scientific six or seven months earlier may support the conjecture that Most’s political trajectory had something to do with that modification. Again, Engels’s reaction is to emphasize how long the state will be around, its departure being “gradual” and “ultimate” among other “final results”. In publishing this letter, indeed, Engels decided to omit the words “and ultimate disappearance”.[32]

In The Origin of the Family a year later he describes the consequences of a socialist revolution: “Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole machinery of state where it will then belong: into the museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.”[33]Introducing an 1891 edition of Marx’s Civil War in France, he speaks of a victorious working class immediately dumping the worst aspects of the state “until such a time as a new generation, reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap”.[34] This would all imply a more active intervention in finishing off the state. Putting something in a museum requires a deliberate decision that it now constitutes a museum piece. Throwing something on a scrapheap, saying good riddance to bad rubbish, is not the same as allowing it to peacefully shuffle off this mortal coil in its own good time. There is still no specific timeframe mentioned, and wisely so, because the development of material conditions is not a shadow that history can jump over. But history provides precious few examples of states going quietly, let alone the state in general, and getting rid of it will be an act that people consciously execute by their own political intervention, not something that will fall into their lap. A socialist society would likely be the scene of vigorous debates about whether the time had arrived for this or that aspect of state power to go.

It remains an enigma why Engels rewrote what was to become one of his most influential comments on the subject, eliminating an active hostility to the state and all its works, and replacing it with a more passive observance of its obsequies. And why this rewriting has passed without notice or discussion, when almost every word from the pens of Marx and Engels has been debated back and forth by scholars, is a real mystery. It speaks of a lingering ambiguity around a central issue of socialist revolution, an issue which Marxist thought can ill afford to ignore.



[1] Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975-2004), vol. 6, p 212.

[2] Ibid, p 505.

[3] ‘Political Indifferentism’, Marx/Engels, Collected Works, vol. 23, p 393.

[4] ‘Notes on Bakunin’s Statehood and Anarchy’, Collected Works, vol. 24, p 519.

[5] ‘Fictitious Splits in the International’, Collected Works, vol. 23, p 121.

[6] ‘On Authority’, ibid, p 425.

[7] ‘The Death of the State in Marx and Engels’, Socialist Register, 1970, p 285.

[8] Letter to August Bebel, 18-28 March 1875, Collected Works, vol. 45, p 64.

[9] Letter to Theodor Cuno, 24 January 1872, Collected Works, vol. 44, p 307.

[10] Letter to Marx, 28 May 1876, Collected Works, vol. 45, p 122.

[11] Friedrich Engels, ‘Herr Eugen Dühring’s Umwälzung des Sozialismus’, Vorwärts, 26 Mai 1878, my translation.

[12] See his letter to Bebel, quoted above.

[13] Frédéric Engels, Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique (Paris: Derveaux, 1880), p 31.

[14] Friedrich Engels, ‘Herr Eugen Dühring’s Umwälzung der Philosophie’, Vorwärts!, 3 Januar 1877, my translation. See Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique, p 16.

[15] Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique, p 35, my translation.

[16] Letter to Bebel, 23 September 1882, Collected Works, vol. 46, p 336. See also his letter to Eduard Bernstein, 22 September 1882, ibid, p 331.

[17] Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (Berlin: Vorwärts, 1891), p 40, my translation.

[18] The primary meaning of einschlafen is to go to sleep, but it can figuratively mean to fizzle out or fade away. The English translation which Engels approved says here that state interference “dies out”. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892), p 76. In another contemporary translation, state interference “falls by itself into desuetude”: Frederick Engels, The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science(New York: The People, 1892), p 24. Engels himself was contemptuous of this “pirated American edition which has been done into quite execrable English”, however: letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, 24 October 1891, Collected Works, vol. 49, p 265.

[19] Letter to Bernstein, 13 September 1882, Collected Works, vol. 46, p 325.

[20] Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, p vii.

[21] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Werke, Band 19 (Berlin: Dietz, 1972), 189-228; Collected Works, vol. 24, p 281-325.

[22] Friedrich Engels, Rogha Saothair (Dublin: Coiscéim, 2020). Likewise I had previously translated Karl Marx, Rogha Saothair (Dublin: Coiscéim, 2018).

[23] Frederick Engels, Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Anti-Dühring) (New York: International Publishers, 1935), p 315.

[24] For instance, Karl Marx, Selected Works (Moscow/Leningrad: Co-Operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR, 1935), vol. I, 182. Despite only Marx’s name being on the title page, two fifths of this selection consists of texts by Engels alone.

[25] See Werke, Band 20 (Berlin: Dietz, 1978), p 262; Collected Works, vol. 25, p 268.

[26] Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft, p 6.

[27] Frédéric Engels, Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique (Paris: l’Humanité, 1924), p 88-9.

[28] Collected Works, vol. 25, p 9.

[29] Letter to Bebel, 7 March 1883, Collected Works, vol. 46, p 454.

[30] V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress 1964), p 73-4.

[31] Letter to Philip van Patten, 18 April 1883, Collected Works, vol. 47, p 10.

[32] Friedrich Engels, ‘Zum Tode von Karl Marx’, II, Der Sozialdemokrat, 17 Mai 1883. Werke, Band 19, p 344 follows the text of the article here, but Collected Works, Vol. 24, 477 adds the omitted words to the article, without note or explanation.

[33] Collected Works, vol. 26, p 272.

[34] Collected Works, vol. 27, p 190.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



No items found