Anti- Dühring

My three favorite Marxist works are Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and Engels’ Anti-Dühring.  Of those, the latter is by far of the most general interest.  In it, Engels lays out of the basics of Marxist economics, sociology, and philosophy, as well as making more than a few fascinating insights into the natural sciences.  As Engels said in the Preface, “it was necessary to follow Herr Dühring into that vast territory in which he dealt with all things under the sun and with some others as well.”

It’s been at least three years since I last read it, and that’s too long.  Jenphalian and I have been talking about reading it together, and I can see no good reason not to do so here, in front of god, Texas, and everyone else.

I daresay everyone is invited, even encouraged, to participate, but I’m going to make explicit something that I never expressed during my earlier readings of Capital (which I’d like to continue if my fucking book would show up) and The Wealth of Nations: I have no special interest, in these cases, of arguing.  I’m doing these readings for my own benefit (in this case, also jenphalian’s), not to convince anyone of anything.  In my reading of Capital, I didn’t bother arguing with those who were certain that value is a product of ideas because arguing with them would not help clarify the points I was working through.  I do not doubt that this book, with its wide-ranging subject matter, will inspire vitriol and impassioned dispute from those who long ago made up their minds about Marxism.  That’s fine, and if that’s you, feel free to contribute your idiotic opinions, but I probably won’t answer unless doing so will help my own understanding.  Nevertheless, I would ask that you not respond to my observations unless you have also read the material.

Unless I forget, I’ll be sticking in cut tags for those poor souls on Livejournal.  If I can recall how those work.

Comments will account for 20% of your grade, the mid-term 30%, and the final test…oh, wait.  Never mind.

The version I’m using is here.

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21 thoughts on “Anti- Dühring”

  1. About how accessible is the text to the layman? (Laywomen? Eh, to me, who’s got little experience with this kind of theory.) I’d like to read along.

  2. Fade, I found Chapter 1 to be quite lucid. It could have been written this year. They made some claims that I wouldn’t want to accept as true without a lot of study, but it was very clear what the claims were.

    Chapter 2 is a short hatchet job on some 19th century philosopher who today would not be worth refuting for his own sake. If he said anything like what they say he did, he was some kind of poopyhead and just not worth much attention at all.

    Chapter 3 is turgid. They argue that Duhring is wrong about how thought works and the nature of mathematics. From what they say he said, I think they are right that he is wrong. But then they argue about the truth of how thought and mathematics work, and from a modern perspective they look as wrong as Duhring. Their arguments are utterly unsupportable today. They necessarily do a lot of worthless handwaving because they cannot provide logical arguments for their wrong claims. I expect that they will claim that being right about this fundamental point (when in fact they are wrong) will serve as the basis for everything else they do. But I am reasonably sure that it will be possible to derive their later conclusions from some other basis just as well. If I am right about that, being wrong on this one thing would not affect the rest of their claims. Also, with Duhring wrong and them wrong, the field is clear for new hypotheses about what is right. There is no consensus about that just yet….

    Chapter 4 is much better. Duhring tries to use pure logic from some sort of axioms he claims are true about the world, to draw highly abstract conclusions about the world that he thinks must be true. They rightly deride him. They claim that his thinking is exactly similar to Hegel, who was delirious. I do not notice them proposing an alternative, and so they fail to be wrong. Or maybe they do make claims. They appear to say that the world is made of many parts. Some of them are white and others black. Some parts are alive and others not. The world is the sum of all these parts and therefore is not a unity. But this is a big step. Imagine that the world was a unity, but we perceive it differently at different times. Does our perception of parts mean that it is not unified? I could see that either way. This is all extremely dry philosophy with no redeeming social value. And I doubt their later conclusions depend on this either.

    It’s all easy to read. They knock down the Duhring straw man repeatedly. Maybe in his time he was not a straw man and deserved to be refuted. Sad if so. They make their own conclusions which are not much better. I’m tempted to skip to the good parts.

  3. “I didn’t bother arguing with those who were certain that value is a product of ideas ….”

    How DO you argue with people like that? I could probably argue Jesus right down off the cross, but I utterly fail when confronted with someone who firmly believes that ideas=wealth. Perhaps I am simply too materialist to even understand their point of view? It seems so very obvious to me that wealth simply cannot exist without labor, and that ideas cannot be made into wealth without labor, that someone who attempts to convince me that ideas are the cause of wealth makes me think “what a fucking moron” when I know good and well that these people have a working brain!

    Any pointers would be appreciated.

    Will I need an I.V. to supply me with hydration through Anti-Duhring? Please warn me now.

  4. There are plenty of people like that. “You pay for a product what it is worth to you, that is its value.” We’re just all very, very lucky that “what it is worth to you” always ends up being more than the cost of production, I guess, on account of otherwise nothing would be produced. How do you argue with them? You don’t. You smile and nod and say, “How ’bout them Cowboys?”

  5. Hmmmm, in other words, their point of view is non-logical and non-rational, and it is therefore pointless to even attempt to refute them?

    “Move along, nothing to see here, move along.”

  6. The most accessible parts of Anti-Duhring were made into a booklet that was extremely popular, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. It’s at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

    Engels is much easier to read than Marx. Anyone writing about Victorian England ought to read The Condition of the Working Class in England.

  7. “[Elinor] agreed to it; as she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” <–One more reason to love Jane Austen.

  8. I’m glad you’re doing this as I hadn’t read this yet. From the various prefaces I get that Engels is writing this as a refutation of Duhring’s views. The various prefaces set up the state of this and the times.
    Chapter 1 recapitulates philosophy and the gradual evolution of materialist thought. I would quibble with his lumping Descartes and Spinoza together as Spinoza does much more for the establishment of materialism and his works are really a beat down on Descartes mind/body dualism. But, that really isn’t the main emphasis of the chapter, It just stood out to me as I have recently been looking into Descartes and Spinoza and that time period.
    The remainder of the chapter finishes a brief tour of the state of philosophy at the time of the writing.
    One thing I am interested in seeing as we read through this is where today
    s corporate executive class might fit into this. They don’t necessarily own capital, but control it through the means of the corporation and thus reap profits.

  9. “I didn’t bother arguing with those who were certain that value is a product of ideas ….”

    ‘How DO you argue with people like that? I could probably argue Jesus right down off the cross, but I utterly fail when confronted with someone who firmly believes that ideas=wealth.’

    They aren’t completely wrong. It’s just they want to take it farther than it will go, to justify concentration of wealth.

    ‘Perhaps I am simply too materialist to even understand their point of view? It seems so very obvious to me that wealth simply cannot exist without labor, and that ideas cannot be made into wealth without labor, that someone who attempts to convince me that ideas are the cause of wealth makes me think “what a fucking moron”’

    If you work hard but you don’t know how, that doesn’t lead to wealth either. It takes ideas and also careful management and also labor to create stuff. So how do we fairly split up the proceeds?

    Say you have a galley ship. A bunch of guys row with heavy oars to make the ship go. One guy beats a drum so they row together. Somebody paid to build the ship in the first place. The ship goes places and acquires money. Who deserves it? Only the rowers? That isn’t fair. If it’s mostly the guy who paid to build the ship, and the guy with the drum and the guys with whips who persuade the rowers to row harder get a little bit while the rowers get fed enough to row tomorrow, that isn’t fair either. How about the great-grandchildren of the guy who figured out how to build the ship in the first place? The guy who figured it out deserves something, without him there wouldn’t be any ship. But how much does he deserve? I don’t see any obvious fair answer. The IP guys are pushing for way too much.

    ““You pay for a product what it is worth to you, that is its value.” We’re just all very, very lucky that “what it is worth to you” always ends up being more than the cost of production, I guess, on account of otherwise nothing would be produced.”

    If you can’t afford it, then you mostly have to do without like Gar Lipow’s Daddy. If there aren’t enough customers who are willing to pay more than the variable cost, then the product will usually quit being produced fairly quick. The stuff that does get produced mostly sells for more than production cost — that’s success in that system. But even with successful products there can be a bit of overproduction that results in some little part of it selling for whatever they can get. Even successful authors have some remaindered books.

    It’s possible to build a consistent economic theory around the idea that “what a customer is willing to pay” is what “value” means. I find it unsatisfying.

    In psychology you can say that a positive reinforcer for a chicken is anything that gets the chicken to do more of what it was doing, and a negative reinforcer is anything that gets the chicken to do less of what it was doing. You can make a consistent theory around that. But this does not actually tell you anything about what chickens want. Kind of like that.

  10. evergreen: Yeah, pretty much. :-)

    Steve Halter: Remember that he is lumping Spinoza and Descartes together only in a specific and limited way: “The newer philosophy on the other hand, although in it also dialectics had brilliant exponents (e.g., Descartes and Spinoza)…” That is, as both being exponents of dialectics, not in any general sense.

  11. skzb:Right.
    For a procedural note, are you going to do this in chapter by chapter form or just kind of based on where the reading takes you?

  12. I have the book, and have mostly read it twice, but found it hard enough going that I didn’t “get” much of it. Maybe if I was going to be graded.

  13. Procedural note from New Jersey: I just put on a pot of coffee. I’m going out to the stoop with my nook for a cigarette to start the book. I’ll keep reading until I don’t get something hard enough that neither the dictionary nor wikipedia (the nook links to both!*) can help me and then I’ll be back here with SRS QRYS.

    *don’t ask me which one, dictionary-geeks: I do not know off-hand

  14. I had no stomach for long explanations why some 19th century buffoon was wrong about abstract philosophy, so I skipped to chapter 9, Morality and Law, Absolute truths.

    This is refreshing! The scarecrow claims he has absolute truths. Engels then proceeds to show that scientific justifications for absolute truths are unjustified.

    They claim that human thought starts out with lots of errors, and perhaps over time we correct some of the errors. At any given time in the past we have had lots of errors which have since been corrected, and there is every reason to think that we have lots of errors today. Maybe in the future we will have fewer, but still some.

    Engels posits that there are some things that are absolute truths. Trivial things, like 2+2=4, the three sides of a triangle equal 2 right angles, Paris is in France, etc. Of course these are all contingent truths. There are mathematical systems which are sometimes useful, where 2+2=0, on the surface of a sphere the three sides of a triangle add up to something other than 2 right angles, etc. But this does not detract from his bigger argument.

    He then considers science. Does science give us absolute eternal truths? He shows it does not. Mathematics in his day was in disarray, and people disagreed about what mathematical rigor meant. Flaws had been found in the basis of calculus, and mathematicians were starting to look at how to fix them. Now the consensus is that math provides a collection of elegant thought experiments. Given a set of listed assumptions and one of a few varieties of logic, various correct conclusions can be drawn. If those assumptions happen to fit some real situation in the world, then the mathematical conclusions will be true for that real situation. How do you tell whether your assumptions fit any particular situation in the real world? You are on your own there, mathematics cannot tell you. Statistics can tell you how uncertain you should be about that question, given another set of assumptions. To some extent you can test how well the assumptions of statistics fits your real-world situation, given a new set of statistical assumptions…. His particular arguments about mathematics are now outdated, but his conclusions pretty much stand anyway.

    Hard sciences do not give us absolute truth. He gives the example of Boyle’s Law, which some people thought of as an absolute truth in that day. It works perfectly for “ideal gases”. I haven’t heard of any ideal gases in reality yet. Real gases violate Boyle’s assumptions in various ways. It is not an absolute truth but it is still useful.

    Biological sciences involve unimaginable complexity. Tremendous numbers of interrelationships that are hard to untangle. Each set of truths winds up surrounded by a tangle of hypotheses. He is still right.

    Social sciences have it even worse, because societies change quicker than biological species. Things don’t exactly repeat. When different people invent things they hardly ever invent them exactly the same way. And just about the time people figure out a social system, it changes. (Possibly it changes because when people understand it they get too embarrassed to keep doing it….) Social sciences deal only with local changeable systems, and are unlikely to find absolute truths. Most of what they find will be local to the particular systems they get to look at.

    So science mostly does not give us ultimate truths. But people want to claim they know ultimate moral truths. They won’t get those from science. Engels does not mention other nonscientific ways to find ultimate moral truths. Probably just as well.

    Engels briefly mentions logic and dialectics, which he claims investigate the rules of human thought. But no, those propose rules to improve human thought. People make lots of logic mistakes, most of the time. With careful training they can learn to make fewer of them. As Engels points out, there isn’t a lot of eternal truth to be found there.

    Engels claims that it’s even harder to find absolute truths about good and evil. He is a moral relativist. Different groups of people have different moral systems. Is one of them right? How would we find out?

    Then Engels claims that all morality has forever been determined by economic conditions. Morality has always been class morality, furthering the interest of particular classes. Over time, morality has gotten better judged from Engel’s absolute stand where he gets to judge moralities for how good they are, but there is still a long way to go. And while no current morality is anywhere near perfect, proletarian morality is by far the best.

    What a beautiful joke! All that leadup, and then the quick punchline at the end!

  15. Steve Halter: I’m going to start going chapter to chapter, but I’ll largely be guided by Jen’s comprehension and my own; there are parts I’m going to want to stop and work through, but I don’t yet know where they are. Uh, does that help?

  16. Steven: Could you, or have you, or would you ever think about writing a short (suitable for undergraduates) piece on the viability of socialism today? Or recommend one, but I think your writing voice would be effective. I figure if college professors are going to get blamed for indoctrinating youth, I should try it sometime.

    You know, in your copious spare time. Once Hawk is done.

  17. J Thomas, your tone is so dismissive, and you’re so determinedly skipping ahead of the class, that I’m done reading any of your comments on Anti-Dühring. Yes, you’re very smart, but if you don’t want to play along, quit stealing the ball.

    Steve Halter: I’m going chapter by chapter. It is the best system. I’ll try to talk him out of deviating from it.

    Howard Brazee: I was kind of afraid of not getting it. Maybe someone will step up and offer grades for us. Or gold stars. I like gold stars.

  18. Jenphalian, I do not understand your complaint but I have to respect it.

    You don’t like something I did so you won’t read my comments. OK.

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