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Engels’s Ecologically Indispensable if Incomplete Dialectics of Nature

Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature by Kaan Kangal

Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature by Kaan Kangal.

Paul Blackledge is a professor of Marxist theory at Shanxi University. He is the author of Friedrich Engels’s Contribution to Social and Political Theory (New York: SUNY Press, 2019), Marxism and Ethics (SUNY Press, 2012), Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester University Press, 2006), and Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left (Merlin Press, 2004). He is coeditor of Virtue and Politics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), Alasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism (Brill, 2008), Revolutionary Aristotelianism (Lucius and Lucius, 2008), and Historical Materialism and Social Evolution (Palgrave, 2002).
Kaan Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 213 pages, $59.99, paperback.

Among Anglophone academics, the all-too-common assessment of Frederick Engels’s philosophical writings has until recently been almost wholly negative. Engels’s critics have tended to judge him a philosophical failure: an amateur whose dilettantism saddled the twentieth-century Marxist left with a reductionist ontology, a positivist epistemology, and a fatalistic politics.1 According to these critics, the core problem with Engels’s thought was his embrace of G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of a dialectics of nature that apparently led Engels to ascribe human characteristics of intentionality to nature while importing the (supposed) mechanical characteristics of nature into human affairs.

These criticisms of Engels’s thought are fundamentally misjudged. While it is true that Engels’s discussion of the dialectics of nature draws heavily on Hegel, this is a strength of his work, not a weakness. Engels was neither a reductionist nor a positivist, and, far from being a political fatalist, he embraced a form of interventionist politics that was underpinned by a historically emergent ethics. It was this standpoint that he aimed to philosophically ground in Dialectics of Nature. This is not to suggest that Engels’s philosophical writings are unproblematic; they are not. But the problems associated with these works are, as Kaan Kangal details in his welcome new study of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, of a very different order than those usually ascribed to them.2

Regrettably, because Engels did not complete Dialectics of Nature, and because the bulk of the manuscripts out of which it was forged is a survey of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science, the political dimension of his argument is more suggestive than exhaustive. Nonetheless, as Kangal argues, this much maligned collection of texts is significantly more impressive than the all-too-often casual criticisms of it would indicate. In it, Engels extends Hegel’s critique of dualism to immunize his own materialism against the pitfalls of reductionism and effectively articulates a powerful emergentist conception of the relationship between natural and human histories.3

According to Engels, while human agency cannot adequately be understood except in and through our relationship to nature, human history cannot be reduced to a mere epiphenomenon of natural history. From this perspective, our emergent relationship with nature involves a sublation of the natural coordinates of action rather than a simple transcendence of those coordinates.4 Accordingly, Engels accepts the rational core of dualism without succumbing to the temptation of reifying the distinction between the natural and social worlds. He therefore insists, contra reductionist forms of materialism, that the logic of politics cannot be reduced either to that of physiology or biology.5

Nonetheless, Engels maintains that human freedom is materially grounded. Against the sterile opposition between autonomy and heteronomy, he returned to Hegel’s famous definition of freedom as the appreciation of necessity.6 Andrew Collier observes that, conceived thus, freedom’s understanding of necessity does not imply—as Engels’s critics are wont to suggest—that humans are condemned to affect the nominal freedom of the prisoner who bows before necessity by agreeing to “come quietly” to her cell. Rather, it is more analogous to the freedom of the yachtswoman who uses her skill and knowledge of the sea to sail near the wind rather than to be merely buffeted, and possibly sunk, by it.7

Engels’s emergentist account of human agency allows him to comprehend the internal relations between opposites in a way that is impossible for dualism while simultaneously avoiding the error of reducing one of these opposites to the other. This approach to social theory marks Engels, as John Bellamy Foster has recently shown, not merely as a founding father of the modern ecological movement, but also as a precursor whose ideas are now more pertinent than ever.8

If Foster is right to emphasize the contemporary political significance of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, Kangal helps unpick the fragments of Engels’s arguments to provide the materials through which a powerful reconstruction of his ideas might be realized. Given constraints on space, Kangal’s book focuses on the question of dialectics rather than Engels’s discussion of the natural sciences, and his aim is to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of Engels’s comments on this pivotal concept. This is a particularly difficult task because, as Kangal stresses, Engels’s notes on dialectics in Dialectics of Nature are fragmentary and condensed. Nonetheless, Kangal effectively contributes to the project of disassociating Engels’s conception of dialectics from both reductionism and dualism.9

By contrast with dualism, Engels’s Dialectics of Nature points toward an ethically grounded, ecological critique of alienation through its defense of the claim that dialectical thought and human agency are rooted within a dialectics of nature. Nature’s dialectic is, according to Engels, most evident through the process of evolution by natural selection. Charles Darwin, he insists, overcame the either/or oppositions characteristic of metaphysical thinking.10 Whereas metaphysicians assume a static conception of nature congruent with the religious view of God creating each distinct species sui generis, evolution by natural selection evidences the fluidity of the natural world and natural essences. So, by contrast with the metaphysical view of essences as static properties, Engels’s critical “essentialism” is dynamic. He believes that because essences are made up of a unity of opposites, “everything is relative.” If natural history is thus a consequence of dynamic essences, human history emerges from this dynamic basis to develop its own irreducible properties. Contra dualism, these properties are not divorced from nature but operate in and through more basic physical, chemical, and biological laws, and so on. Far from being a form of reductionism, this perspective underpins a model of the relative autonomy of human history that, by contrast with postmodernism’s distaste for the supposedly apologetic character of essentialist thinking of all kinds, underpins a historical account of the ethics of liberation.11

In terms of our cognition of nature, Engels follows Hegel’s distinction between understanding and reason. Whereas understanding – the activities of “induction, deduction, and hence also abstractionanalysis of unknown objects…synthesis…and…experiment (in the case of new obstacles and unfamiliar situations)”—is a quality general to all animals at a more or less sophisticated level, reason involves “dialectical thought,” which is unique to humanity and then only at a “comparatively high stage of development (Buddhists and Greeks),” finding its highest expression and “full development much later through modern philosophy.” If Engels’s understanding of dialectics evidences his break with mechanical determinism, his embrace of the concept of reason evidences a similar and related break with empiricism and positivism.12

He argues that skepticism is the flipside of empiricism, but that attempts to solve this problem do not necessarily lead to intractable antinomies as Immanuel Kant supposed. Rather, social practice is the basis for knowledge: “[David] Hume’s scepticism was correct in saying that a regular post hoc can never establish a propter hoc. But the activity of human beings forms the test of causality.” Indeed, “it is precisely the alteration of nature by men, not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought.” So it is through humanity’s dynamic interaction with nature that our understanding both of nature and our own position within it evolves. And if humanity’s evolving understanding of nature through different conceptions of the world is the rational core of the idea that essences are unknowable, a hypothesis whose highest expression is Kant’s essentially religious notion of the “thing-in-itself,” Hegel’s critique of this idea through the concept of practice shows that he was, despite his self-professed idealism, “here a much more resolute materialist than the modern natural scientists.”13

Engels famously summarized his method of analysis through reference to three laws of the dialectic. He argued that these “laws” (or ontological principles) should not, contra Hegel, be foisted on history, but should rather be abstracted from it.14 According to Engels, the three laws of the dialectic consist in: “The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa; The law of the interpenetration of opposites; The law of the negation of the negation.”15 Numerous commentators, including now Kangal, have criticized Engels’s use of the term law to describe these concepts.16 On one level, these criticisms are reasonable enough, especially as Engels does not explicate what he means by a law and his notes on dialectics are schematic in the extreme. However, as Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin have argued, though Engels’s dialectical laws are clearly not meant to describe scientific laws of causality, they can be understood to be laws at a higher level of abstraction, “analogous to [the] prior principles” that “create the terms of reference from which quantifications and predictions may be derived.”17

If Levins and Lewontin are among the writers who provide the resources necessary to overcome weaknesses with Engels’s discussion of the laws of the dialectic, others suggest a solution to Kangal’s claim, true enough in as far as it goes, that Engels’s defense of Hegel’s distinction between reason and understanding is “weak” because “dialectics is not a precondition for investigating ‘the nature of concepts.’”18 The problem with this critique of Engels is that it fails to explore the question of the relative power of these competing attempts at conceptualization. If the proof of the (theoretical) pudding is, as Engels liked to repeat, in the eating, the question that should be asked of his concepts is: Have they been successfully deployed by working scientists, and did this deployment reveal novel truths?19

Despite Cold War attempts to blame Engels (and Karl Marx) for the disaster of Lysenkoism, Engels’s influence on Soviet science was more clearly felt in the controversy over quantum mechanics, where the Soviets were at the forefront of scientific debate.20 Loren Graham argues that dialectical materialism in its Engelsian form tended to influence “subtle areas of interpretation,” which, had it been allowed to develop free of political interference from the authoritarian state, “would no doubt evolve in a direction consistent with the common assumptions of a broad nonmechanistic, nonreductionist materialism.”21

The positive influence of this kind of interpretation of Engels’s thought is perhaps most evident in the famous Soviet intervention at the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931.22 Despite suggestions that the scientists influenced by this event embraced a form of Baconian Prometheanism, more nuanced critics have pointed out that this failing was more true of their earlier pre- and proto-Marxist works, while their subsequent reception of Engels helped guide their work in a nonreductive, ecological direction.23

This point does not imply that Engels’s legacy is unproblematic, but rather that the dominant voices among his critics have misconstrued the weaknesses of his work. Through a close reading of the various manuscripts that Engels’s editors posthumously reconstructed as Dialectics of Nature, Kangal points beyond the limitations of these previous works through an exploration of the political, theoretical, and philosophical context in which Engels wrote to illuminate the strengths and limitations of his contributions to dialectical thought. In relation to Georg Lukács’s famous criticism (in footnote 6 in the opening chapter of History and Class Consciousness) of Engels’s conception of the dialectics of nature, Kangal shows that this same criticism has roots going back to Hegel’s contemporaries as well as early critics of Marx and Engels. The main weakness to be found in the arguments of these critics of the idea of a dialectics of nature is that they tend to a static, reified view of the natural world.24 Against this conception of the world, Engels argued that nature’s movement and history showed it to be “proof of dialectics.”25

Despite the power of this insight, Kangal highlights important weaknesses with Dialectics of Nature. While Engels posits an Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition of dialectical thinking to which he proclaims his allegiance and against which he posits a metaphysical tradition culminating in Kant, he fails adequately to specify the intellectual coordinates of these competing traditions. For instance, whereas Engels suggests that Hegel’s Objective Logic could act as a “provisional model to be revised and adjusted,” he unfortunately “does not show us where exactly Hegel got things wrong, and what he himself proposes instead.” Similarly, despite his positive comments on Aristotle, Engels offers “no clues about what exactly is confirmed or denied in Aristotle.” Engels’s criticisms of Kant are if anything even more problematic. Kangal points out that the concept of the thing-in-itself sits at the core of Engels’s disagreement with Kant, and that Engels’s distaste for this concept is reasonable enough, as his belief that Hegel had successfully challenged Kant over this issue. However, this critique does not exhaust the problems posed to Engels’s framework by Kant. For, whereas Engels posits an opposition between (good) dialectical thought and (bad) metaphysical thought, Kant was a self-proclaimed metaphysical thinker who was “by no means a malevolent detractor of dialectics.”26

Though Engels’s critique of metaphysics is in accord with Hegel’s and Kant’s criticisms of “old metaphysics” and with “Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s shortcomings” in relation to this tradition, Engels’s critique of metaphysics is at best incomplete because it sidesteps the more sophisticated aspects of their new metaphysics. Kangal argues that one consequence of this slippage in Engels’s argument is that aspects of his critique of idealism actually “reinforces some arguments that are compatible with the very accounts he intends to destroy.” Similarly, Engels too quickly assumes that powerful criticisms of individual writers in the metaphysical and idealist traditions can be generalized to criticisms of these traditions as wholes. All of this means that, while dialectics “may be said to be the opposite of the ‘old metaphysics,’” it “does not contradict the newer ‘metaphysics’ in Hegel’s sense of these terms.” Consequently, although Kangal accepts the power of Engels’s “interrelation of materialism and dialectics” through his deployment of insights from (primarily) Hegel and Aristotle, he sees Hegel as a potential ally in the battle for this worldview rather than a merely superseded precursor to Engels’s (and Marx’s) worldview(s).27

That said, with regard to debates about the relationship between Marx and Engels, Kangal insists that there is no evidence for a split between the two of them, and that if there were such a split “Marx would have been wrong.” According to Kangal, Engels was “on the right track because he advances the view that nature has a history, and that it is a self-grounded totality.” Indeed, the fact that nature’s essence is both historical and can best be understand through the mutual interdependence of its parts, suggests that dialectics does, contra Engels’s critics, “apply to nature.”28

All of this implies that while Engels’s philosophical works remain incomplete, they are nonetheless powerful and suggestive. And if we are to realize his aim of conceptualizing what Foster calls the ecological unity between humanity and our natural environment, we should aim to fill in the gaps in Engels’s work along the lines suggested by writers such as Collier, Sean Creaven, Foster, and Sean Sayers. Kangal has made an important contribution to this project and it behooves us to read his work to help overcome the remaining lacunae in Engels’s thought as part of the struggle for a coherent ecological alternative to capitalism’s destruction of our environment.


  1. I survey this literature in Paul Blackledge, Friedrich Engels’s Contribution to Social and Political Theory (New York: SUNY Press, 2019), 1–20. See also Paul Blackledge, “Engels vs. Marx?,” Monthly Review 72, no. 1 (May 2020).
  2. Kaan Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 97, 204.
  3. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 448; Sean Sayers, “Engels and the Dialectics of Nature” (lecture, University of Nanjing, China, November 6, 2020); Sean Sayers, “Engels’s Materialism,” in Engels Today, ed. Chris Arthur (London: Macmillan, 1996); Sean Sayers, “Dualism, Materialism and Dialectics,” in Hegel, Marx and Dialectic: A Debate, by Richard Norman and Sean Sayers (Brighton: Harvester, 1980), 76–77; Sean Creaven, Emergentist Marxism (London: Routledge, 2007), 70–142; Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (London: Verso, 1993), 150–52; John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature (New York: Monthly Review, 2020), 244.
  4. Sayers, “Engels and the Dialectics of Nature.”
  5. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, in Collected Works, vol. 25, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 330.
  6. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, in Collected Works, vol. 25, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 105–6.
  7. Andrew Collier, Critical Realism (London: Verso, 1994), 193.
  8. Foster, The Return of Nature,171–298.
  9. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 4, 121.
  10. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 492–93.
  11. Paul Blackledge, Marxism and Ethics (New York: SUNY Press, 2012), 53.
  12. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 503, 509.
  13. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 510–11, 521. See, more generally, Sean Sayers, Reality and Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985).
  14. On Engels’s laws as ontological; principles see John Bellamy Foster, “Engels’s Dialectics of Nature in the Anthropocene,” Monthly Review 72, no. 6 (November 2020): 7.
  15. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, 356.
  16. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 165–76.
  17. Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 268.
  18. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 135.
  19. Frederick Engels, introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in Collected Works, vol. 27, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1990).
  20. Loren Graham, Science, Philosophy and Human Behaviour in the Soviet Union (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 4; Ethan Pollock, Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 41–71. See, by way of comparison, Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (Toronto: Bantam, 1984), 252–55.
  21. Graham, Science, Philosophy and Human Behaviour in the Soviet Union, 6.
  22. Gary Wersky, The Visible College (London: Free Association, 1987), 138–49; Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993), 304–36; Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 78–81.
  23. Neal Wood, Communism and British Intellectuals (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), 145; Jonathan Rée, Proletarian Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 92–95; Edwin Roberts, The Anglo Marxists (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), 167–69, 175–79; Andrew Brown, D. Bernal: The Sage of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 108; Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, “Red Scientist,” in J. D. Bernal, ed. Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian (London: Verso, 1999), 132; Foster, The Return of Nature, 376, 515–16, 524.
  24. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 202.
  25. Engels, Anti-Dühring, 23.
  26. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 129, 141, 145–46, 153.
  27. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 157, 165.
  28. Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, 185, 202.
2021, Commentary, Volume 72, Issue 11 (April 2021)
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