Anti-Dühring Part 1: Prefaces


The first sections of Anti-Dühring were released in the German socialist press in 1877.  The point of the prefaces is to establish a context, both for the original work and the new editions.  In part, this includes what was happening in German philosophy at the time. It was, in a sense, a “fad” within scientific and philosophical circles, to create all-embracing “systems” that explained everything. It’s certainly understandable; the middle-late 19th Century spanned the period from the threshold of breakthroughs in nearly all of the physical sciences, to the time when such breakthroughs became commonplace. Before this period, it was still unknown how the transformation of the form of motion (for example, the emission of steam to the raising of a given weight a given distance) changed the calculation necessary to determine the quantity of motion; by the end of it, these laws were an accepted part of physics and casually used to make other calculations. In the middle of this period of discovery, it would be an almost irresistible temptation to come with a Grand Theory of Everything, and many people did–particularly those who had no knowledge of anything. Let us recall that Herr Dühring’s expertise–such as it was–was in the law. While this ought not to qualify him to speak of biology, physics, economics, &c, he was by no means alone in believing otherwise. In this, of course, nothing has changed.

This was also, more significantly, still early in the formation of German, and international, socialism.  The Reichsbank, and all it said about German Imperialism, was only a year old. The Communist Manifesto, with its promise of a scientific basis for socialism, was not yet 30 years old; the first volume of Capital, which delivered on that promise, only ten.  Russia and Turkey were gearing up for war.  The ideas of Socialism were spreading throughout Europe fast enough that in only a year Germany would declare them illegal–which would, naturally, spur their growth even more.

If you have a rapidly growing movement based on difficult and complex political principles, it is very nearly foreordained that a great deal of confusion over those principles will occur.  The tradition of free, open, lively, and far-ranging discussion within the socialist movement–brutally interrupted by Stalinsim, reestablished by Trotskyism–dates back to this period.

In the prefaces, Engels establishes some principles that will be important in understanding the book: “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”  In general, laws of motion are deduced from facts–this applies to laws governing “nature” as well as laws governing “society.”  I put quotes around those words to emphasize that, while many consider them opposites, there is, in fact, no reason to view society as anything but part of nature; hence no reason why the search for the laws of motion should be approached any differently.

Engels then goes on speak of advancements in science between 1877 and the time of the current preface (1885).  “The old rigid antagonisms, the sharp, impassable dividing lines are more and more disappearing. Since even the last ‘true’ gases have been liquefied, and since it has been proved that a body can be brought into a condition in which the liquid and the gaseous forms are indistinguishable, the aggregate states have lost the last relics of their former absolute character….” and “Whereas only ten years ago the great basic law of motion, then recently discovered, was as yet conceived merely as a law of the conservation of energy, as the mere expression of the indestructibility and uncreatability of motion, that is, merely in its quantitative aspect, this narrow negative conception is being more and more supplanted by the positive idea of the transformation of energy, in which for the first time the qualitative content of the process comes into its own, and the last vestige of an extramundane creator is obliterated.”

He was wrong about that last, of course–the ever-creative theists, once it was shown that God was not, in fact, responsible for those things “science will never answer” retreated and took a new stand on matters “science will never answer,” such as the creation of life, which held good until the twentieth century, and when that fell, it turned into vague, abstract, and meaningless questions “science will never answer.”  But in principle he was right, and for those with an interest in the history of religious thought, it is worth considering.

“And since biology has been pursued in the light of the theory of evolution, one rigid boundary line of classification after another has been swept away in the domain of organic nature. The almost unclassifiable intermediate links are growing daily more numerous, closer investigation throws organisms out of one class into another, and distinguishing characteristics which almost became articles of faith are losing their absolute validity.”

I do want to take a moment with this, because I think it is useful as a pointer to the method of dialectical materialism, which Engels will be demonstrating throughout the book: The materialist dialectic does not deny that categories exist in nature. But it does not treat those categories as rigid, inflexible, set for all time.  There is, in other words, a real difference between a liquid and a solid–between water and ice. That difference isn’t just in our heads, it reflects actual differences in nature. But water and ice can transform into one another; there can be boundary conditions that blur the lines; there is motion and transformation of categories, as well as of the things that may be contained within them.  So far, the only rigid, inflexible, permanent categorization known to exist is between science fiction and fantasy.

“The recognition that these antagonisms and distinctions, though to be found in nature, are only of relative validity, and that on the other hand their imagined rigidity and absolute validity have been introduced into nature only by our reflective minds — this recognition is the kernel of the dialectical conception of nature.”

Which is also true of society, and also true of the ideas with which we understand society.  That it, this recognition not only drives Engels’ exploration in the book, but ought to drive our own investigation of the book.  The critical approach, looking for truth that has become untruth, or categories that have changed, or discoveries that have negated what was then known, is the difference between the method of Marxism and dogmatism.


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11 thoughts on “Anti-Dühring Part 1: Prefaces”

  1. “While this ought not to qualify him to speak of biology, physics, economics, &c, he was by no means alone in believing otherwise. In this, of course, nothing has changed.”

    Hmm. Would Engels speak to qualifications that way? I suspect he would look at methods and results, not qualifications. What was important about Duhring wasn’t that he was a lawyer and therefore should only be respected on matters of law. It was that he was wrong about socialism. I gotta stress that while Marx spent decades in research, that research was not a “qualification”–or if it was, it’s a qualification most nuts can claim. Marx’s formal education was in philosophy, and his critics could as easily say that didn’t qualify him to write about capitalism. The problem with Duhring was simple: Engels and Marx were worried that he would be taken seriously if he wasn’t thoroughly refuted.

  2. I skipped the prefaces, but I feel sufficiently edified by this post that I’m not going back now. Holding my questions on ch. 1 until there’s a spot for them.

    Of particular note to me right now, and possibly of use to others, Alt+129 produces the ü for me in both wordpress comments and open office.

  3. It isn’t as simple, in my opinion, as, “You have no expertise in this field, therefore I will ignore you.” I think it is more that, if you are going to speak in fields where you have no training, you really ought to have done your homework, otherwise you’re just going to embarrass yourself.

    Even more, the very fact that I, for example, would speak in an area where I was untrained and hadn’t studied indicates a fundamental lack of seriousness. This is by no means sufficient to answer someone’s arguments; but it is part of understanding and answering the argument. It’s just like pointing out that a someone defending imperialism has close ties to the CIA, or that a supporter of identity politics is upper middle-class; it doesn’t finish the argument, but neither should it be ignored.

  4. “It’s just like pointing out that a someone defending imperialism has close ties to the CIA, or that a supporter of identity politics is upper middle-class; it doesn’t finish the argument, but neither should it be ignored.”

    The truth of a statement is independent of who says it. But people who oppose you might try to get you to accept lies because they are not your friends. On the other hand your friends might lie to you for some higher purpose. So check whatever you can check.

    However, the CIA is good at introducing the same lie from sources that appear to be independent. So are other “intelligence” services. So any real-world data that you did not collect yourself, has to be somewhat suspect. All governments will sometimes publish statistical lies. And sometimes the blowback from their own lies will bite them. They usually don’t have a method in place to tell all their own people which numbers are real and which are lies, and they hurt themselves. So when a government acts like it believes its numbers, that does not mean it did not know it was publishing lies when it published them.

    If two opposing governments agree about some factoid, that does not mean the factoid is probably true. It only means they likely both feel they benefit from people believing it.

    Media often try to publish things that will get them attention, independent of truth within wide limits. There may have been a time when they tried to inform the public of things the public needed to know, but it was before my time. If there is some special media you trust that you think is different, probably it is not that different.

    When you refuse to consider an idea, you accept blinders. But then, there is only so much time available.

    So for example I tend to dismiss Austrian school economics. They start with an axiomatic system like Duhrer’s. They argue how things must be based on their assumptions which they consider universal truths, without actual data. They try to describe complicated feedback systems with english verbiage. They make verbal static equilibrium models, and argue that anything which is not in equilibrium must result in catastrophe. I don’t need to become expert in their thinking to reject it. Their methods are bad, and their results may be good by accident or by divine inspiration.

    Sometimes people who are not experts in a system of thought do not understand it well enough to comment. Sometimes, people who are not experts in the way that one particular insular clique thinks, can still know enough to trump those experts. It depends.

  5. Steve, I realized after I left the comment that “qualifications” may be on the list of words that different groups use in different ways. To academics, they’re degrees and a list of publications. To capitalists, they’re ultimately capital. To most of us, they’re really experience: do you know your shit or are you full of it? In one way, the first two groups have it easier: those qualifications can be evaluated in a glance. The rest of us are prisoners of our lives: a person with atypical experiences will draw atypical conclusions which may or may not jibe with the outlook of a more typical person.

    “Typical” is used purely in the sense of closeness to the norm. There’s no implication intended that it’s better to be one or the other, or that one or the other is more likely to see the truth. “Dialectical” applies here: if you want to know the goldfish bowl, it helps to understand it from within and without. I often think Marx would’ve gotten nowhere without Engels, not just because of Engels’ money, but because Engels was a capitalist with a working-class lover–he gave Marx the chance to see into two groups that might’ve otherwise been closed to a middle-class academic whose heart and mind were in the right place.

  6. Will and Steve:That was the general impression I got out of the prefaces–Durhing had to be answered as what he was proposing was quite wrong but also seemed to be attractive to many people. Unfortunately far too many political philosophies around here in the 21st century still fit that description.:-(

  7. And for the reason that it is exactly by answering certain levels of argument that we are able to express (and, sometimes discover) our own positions.

  8. “So far, the only rigid, inflexible, permanent categorization known to exist is between science fiction and fantasy.”

    I see what you did there :-)

  9. “It’s just like pointing out that a someone defending imperialism has close ties to the CIA, or that a supporter of identity politics is upper middle-class; it doesn’t finish the argument, but neither should it be ignored.”

    “I believe that someone putting more or less weight on an argument because of the race, sex, or sexual preference of the person making the argument is being unscientific, and is thus interfering with our ability to understand society and, therefore, our ability to change it.”

    Similarly, their particular identity politics etc. If you know how to pigeon-hole them then you have some idea what kinds of fallacies to expect from them. But that is only an expectation.

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