Marx Myths and Legends. Maximilien Rubel

The Legend of Marx, or “Engels the founder”


Source: Rubel originally prepared his “Gesichtspunkte zum thema ‘Engels als
Begründer’” as a paper in German for the “Internationale wissenschaftliche
Engels-Konferenz” of May 1970 in Wuppertal, but first published it in French
in 1972 as “La Légende de Marx ou Engels fondateur” in Études de Marxology,
Série S, No. 5. Socialisme : Science et Ethique. This version is translated
from the French by Rob Lucas for “Marx Myths and Legends” and is covered by
the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence
Note from the author

In May 1970, upon the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of
Friedrich Engels, the town of Wuppertal had organised an international
scientific conference. This occasion brought together around 50 specialists
from more than 10 European countries, as well as Israel and the United
States whose task was to take stock of modern research on the thought of he
who is universally taken to be, alongside his friend Karl Marx, one of the
founders of “Marxism”. Invited to participate in this conference, I intended
to submit as a text for the discussion a series of critical theses centred
on the theme of Engels’s responsibility for the genesis of the dominant
ideology of the 20th century: ‘Marxism’. It had seemed to me normal and
urgent to share my critical reservations, in the context of a more
‘scientific’ than commemorative event, to an audience informed of the
problems in the evolution of ideas in relation to the events and upheavals
that have marked the 20th Century. I had therefore presented the organisers
a document in 8 points, written in German, which I had titled
“Gesichtspunkte zum thema ‘Engels als Begründer’”.

To my surprise, upon arrival in Wuppertal, I was received by the conference
officials who informed me of a certain predicament: my Soviet and East
German colleagues, being personally offended when reading my “Viewpoints”,
were threatening to leave the conference if my contribution was not
retracted from the debate! After laborious negotiation we came to an
agreement on a formula which seemed likely to calm the irritation of these
‘scientific’ representatives from ‘socialist’ countries: the texts would no
longer be read from the platform, but merely commented upon and discussed.
It would be tempting to recount the details of the debate if the objections
had merited the term ‘scientific’, and if the behaviour of certain
participants hadn’t translated as a complete refusal to engage in a
discussion that risked putting in question the range of ideological
positions of ‘marxism-leninism’. At the same time, this obstinate if not
insulting refusal, was enough to confirm to the eyes of an impartial
observer the fundamental criticism that can be directed at the use of this
concept of ‘Marxism’, the erroneous use of which was precisely what my
“Viewpoints” denounced[1]<>

The epilogue to this conference was to further underline the solid grounding
of a critique which, in the form of a simple semantic reflection, in fact
represented a defence of Marx’s social theory in opposition to Marxist
mythology. As it turned out, the organisers were not afraid of avoiding the
elementary rules of editorial policy generally respected in ‘bourgeois’
democracies: the text (submitted at the request of the officials) was not
included in the volume of collected contributions that were submitted prior
to the conference[2]<>.
Habent sua fata

We here present a translation of the text refused by the conference at
Wuppertal, with some supporting commentary.
Viewpoints on the Theme of “Engels the Founder”

“For the ultimate final triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto,
Marx relied solely upon the intellectual development of the working class,
as it necessarily has to ensue from united action and discussion.”
-F. Engels, Preface to the 1890 German edition of the Communist

Marxism did not enter the world as an authentic product of Karl Marx’s way
of thinking, but was conceived in Friedrich Engels’ mind. Insofar as the
term ‘marxism’ conceals a rational concept, it is not Marx but Engels who
carries the responsibility; and if today Marx’s argument retains a priority,
it is principally related to problems for which Engels did not find more
than a partial solution, or with which he did not concern himself.
Therefore, if these problems can be resolved at all, this can only be with
the help of Marx himself. By no means does this mean that Engels must be
excluded from discussion, but it is legitimate to question the extent to
which he should be taken into account in any dealings with the writings of
Marx which escaped his attention. In more general terms the question can be
thus formulated: what are the limits of Engels’ competence in his role as
uncontested executor of Marx’s intellectual legacy, to which we still appeal
to elucidate the material and ethical problems of our time?

This interrogation must examine a central problem – that of the intellectual
relationship between Marx and Engels, ‘founders’ of a collection of
ideological and political concepts artificially grouped under the name
‘marxism’. The fact that this question must be posed itself reveals a very
characteristic phenomenon of our epoch, which one might now call the ‘myth
of the 20th Century’. We should recall that the ‘founders’ sometimes
themselves evoked mythological interpretation to underline the peculiar
character of their friendship and intellectual collaboration: Marx was not
being ironic in invoking the example of antique “Dioscures” or that of
Orestes and Pylade, whilst Engels mocked the rumour according to which
“Ahriman-Marx” had led “Ormuzd-Engels”
There is equally an opposite tendency, with increasingly frequent efforts to
oppose Marx to Engels: the first would be the ‘true’ founder, the second
reduced to the rank of mere


Any investigation into the relationship between Marx and Engels is in
advance destined to fail if it does not clear away the legend of the
‘foundation’ and does not take for a methodological point of departure the
aporia of the concept of Marxism. It was the merit of Karl Korsch, when
twenty years ago at the threshold of a radical revision of his intellectual
positions, to have attempted a critique of Marxism which amounted to a
declaration of war. However, Korsch simply did not dare commit the act of
sweeping away the concept of Marxism and it’s mythological residues.
Instead, he tried to remove this difficulty through the usage of linguistic
artifices destined to conserve and to save the “important elements of the
Marxist doctrine” with a view to the “reconstruction of a revolutionary
theory and practice”. In his “Ten Theses on Marxism
Korsch moves indiscriminately between speaking of the “teaching of Marx and
of Engels”, “Marxist doctrine”, the “doctrine of Marx”, “Marxism” and so on
[6] <>. In the fifth
thesis, concerning the question of the precursors, founders and continuators
of the socialist movement, Korsch goes so far as to omit the name of Engels,
the alter ego of Marx! Yet he was not far from the truth when he wrote:

“Today, all attempts to re-establish the Marxist doctrine as a whole in its
original function as a theory of the working classes social revolution are
reactionary utopias.”

Korsch could as well, and more accurately, have spoken of “absurd
mythologies” in place of “reactionary utopias”.

In view of the impossibility of rationally defining the meaning of the
concept of Marxism, it seems logical to abandon the word itself, yet it is
so commonly and so universally employed. This term, degraded to the point of
merely being a mystificatory slogan, carried from its birth the stigma of
obscurantism. Marx struggled hard to undo this when, in the last years of
his life, his reputation had broken the wall of silence which surrounded his
work, and he made this categorical declaration: “ce qu’il y a de certain
c’est que moi, je ne suis pas
However revealing, the fact that Engels bequeathed this warning to posterity
does not relieve him of the responsibility of having given in to the
temptation of lending the stamp of his authority to this unjustifiable term.
Charged with being the guardian and the perpetuator of a theory, the
elaboration of which he admitted to not having contributed more than a
modest part[8] <>,
and glorifying Marx’s name in an attempt to repair the damage, Engels
inadvertently promoted the genesis of a superstition, the negative
consequences of which he could not have known. Today, sixty years after his
death, his efforts are perfectly clear. When Engels decided to appropriate
the terms ‘marxist’ and ‘marxism’ from his adversaries in order to change a
hostile name into a name of honour, he could hardly have expected that,
through this gesture of defiance (or was it resignation?), he would become
the godfather of a mythology destined to dominate the twentieth century.

The genesis of Marxist myth can be traced to the conflicts within the
International. The need to hurl abuse at the opponent and their partisans
made the ‘anti-authoritarians’, with Bakunin at their head, inventive enough
to create such terms as ‘marxites’, ‘marxists’, and ‘marxism’. Gradually
Marx’s disciples in France developed the habit of accepting these
denominations which they had not created and which destined them to be
distinguished from other socialist factions, so that finally these terms
became political and ideological labels. From then on only the authority of
Engels was necessary to sanction the usage of these terms, the ambiguity of
which may not have been evident to those who used them. Engels was from the
outset energetically hostile to their usage; he knew better than anyone that
it risked corrupting the profound significance of a teaching that should
have been considered the theoretical expression of a social movement and by
no means as a doctrine invented by an individual for the benefit of an
intellectual elite. His resistance did not weaken until when, in 1889, the
dissent between, on one hand the ‘possibilists’, ‘blanquistes’ and
‘broussistes’, and on the other hand the ‘collectivists’ and ‘guesdistes’,
threatened to cause a rupture in the movement in France, each faction having
decided to organize its own international Workers’ Congress. Engels’
predicament is obvious; he attempted to avert danger of confusion and of
verbal and ideological corruption by using inverted commas to speak of
“Marxists” and of “Marxism”, and by speaking of “so-called Marxists”. When
Paul Lafargue expressed his apprehension in seeing his group pass for a
“faction” amongst others in the Workers Movement, Engels replied “we have
never called you anything other than the ‘so-called Marxists’ and I cannot
know what to call you otherwise. If you have another name as short, tell us
and we will duly call you that with

If Nietzsche published Ecce Homo for fear of one day being canonized by
disciples for which he did not at all wish, the same precaution did not seem
necessary in the case of Marx, even though he had not written and published
more than a fragment of his projected oeuvre. Nevertheless, the printed and
unpublished material which he had bequeathed to posterity amounted to a
rigorous formal prohibition against linking his name to the cause for which
he had fought, and to a teaching for which he believed himself mandated by
the anonymous mass of the modern proletariat. If Engels had respected this
prohibition as Marx’s executor, and had applied his veto to the abusive
term, the universal scandal of ‘marxism’ would never have seen the light of
day; but Engels committed the unpardonable error of supporting this abuse,
and thus acquired the dubious honour of being the first ‘Marxist’. It is
tempting to see it as the punishment of destiny that, believing himself
heir, he was in truth the founder – albeit involuntarily – of ‘Marxism’. The
“irony of history” which Engels loved to invoke had played a cruel trick on
him. He thus became a prophet in spite of himself when on his 70th birthday
he pronounced the regretful words: “my destiny willed that I harvest the
honour and the glory sowed by a greater man than I; Karl
For his 150th anniversary, we must acknowledge in Engels the contestable
merit and the more dubious title of ‘founder of Marxism’.

In the history of Marxism and the cult of Marx, Engels is at the forefront.
We are familiar enough with the human and quasi-religious aspect of this
friendship, which does not require particular analysis. On the other hand,
what necessitates a thorough examination is the effect of the friendship as
much upon Marx himself as on his epigones and his distant disciples. Always
ready to act as pioneer of Marx’s theories, Engels expressed many ideas
which Marx could not, of course, accept without critique; the silence of
Marx can be explained by his desire to scrupulously respect the solidarity
which he held with his friend. We cannot confirm the extent to which he
should be identified with everything that Engels had said or written, but
this problem is minor, considering his acknowledged admiration for the
intellectual gifts of his friend: after all, he considered himself Engels’
disciple[11] <>.
That which Marx did not allow himself has today become a strict duty: we
must break the bewitching charm of this legend, and determine the place of
Engels’ oeuvre in the development of the intellectual inheritance of
socialism, in relation to the destiny of the workers’ movement.

It is only if one understands that Engels had the makings of a founder that
one will grasp the reasons for which he went about the duties of editor and
perpetuator of the manuscripts of Marx in a manner which, today more than
ever, demands some
The writings of Marx neglected by Engels (amongst others the preparatory
works for the doctoral thesis, the Kreuznach anti-Hegelian manuscript, the
economico-philosophical sketches of Paris and of Brussels, the Economic
Manuscripts of 1857-1858 (*The Grundrisse*), the numerous workbooks and the
correspondence with third parties) did not only place the researcher and
specialist before entirely new interpretive problems; they erected new
categories and created new generations of readers who could not and would
not content themselves with the stereotyped phraseology of professional
Marxists. The real imperative is to understand a world and to live and act
in a time when ideology, mechanization and manipulation of consciousness are
allied with pure violence, to change the world into a vale of tears.

The theses sketched here above constitute the introduction to a debate whose
essential theme must be the problem of Marxism as the mythology of our era.
The question of the extent to which Engels can be held responsible for the
genesis of this universal superstition is secondary to the extent that we
can affirm, if we recognize the teaching of Marx the ‘materialist’, that
ideologies- amongst which Marxism in all its variants should be placed – do
not fall from the sky; they are essentially bound to the class interests
which are at the same time the interests of power. It is enough to recognize
in Engels the legitimate inheritor of Marx’s thought to denounce in his name
and to his honour, the established ‘Marxism’ as a school of confusion and
misguided ways for our age of iron.

M. Rubel, 1972.

1. <> For a general
survey of the debates at Wuppertal, cf. Henryk Skrypczak, “International
wissenschaftliche Engels-Konferenz in Wupperta” in *International
Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der Deutschten
Arbeitebewegung* (I.W.K.), no. 10, Berlin, June 1970, p. 62 ff. A summary of
my viewpoints can be found ibid. p. 81 ff.

2. <> Friedrich
Engels 1820-1970. Referate-Diskussionen-Dokumente. Internationale
wissenschaftliche Konferenz in Wuppertal vom 25-29 Mai 1970, Hannover,
Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, 1970.

My “position” is commented upon in the following terms:

“In order to fulfill the program of the final day, the council of the
conference had decided to give up the discussion after the 6th session, and
to begin after the 7th with the general debate. Firstly, Maximilien Rubel
was supposed to have continued (?) to expound his conception. He submitted a
text to the conference which was a polemical formulation against Engels, but
did not then present this text before the assembly (with good reason!).
These 8 theses which were, in accordance with the author’s intention, to
provoke a debate on the actual significance of Marxism, may be summarised as
follows: after Marx’s death, Engels made great efforts to elevate the term
‘Marxism’ formed by Marx’s adversaries, to the rank of an intelligible and
definable concept. In doing this, Engels became the founder of a hybrid
system of thought which was alien to the intentions of Marx himself. After
the death of Engels, the ideological germs of this system were transformed
into a conceptual methodology necessarily dependent upon certain class
conditions.” [p. 255 ff.]

The report then mentions a polemic in opposition to mine, from a preceding
session, from an East-German Marxist, about the concept of a “historic
mission”, a controversy, “in which Engels did not play more than an indirect
role” [ibid.]

Much could be said about the “abridged report” which summarises my theses
and the “polemic” which they had provoked. I would simply affirm, however,
that my text “against Engels” was simply the critique of a historically
negative act by the closest and most active collaborator of Marx, and
against a certain school of Marxist thought, the existence of which
constitutes the negation of all that Marx and Engels themselves did for
socialist thought and the workers movement. I continue to believe that my
contribution responded, more than any other, to the true ‘scientific’ spirit
of that conference, in the memory of he who invented the notion of
‘scientific socialism’, and who equally identified this notion with
‘critical socialism’. The conference could not offer a real homage to the
man whom it intended to celebrate if it did not take as a guiding thread in
its debates these words of Engels’:

“The workers movement rests on the most rigorous critique of existing
society. The critique is the vital element. How could it absent itself from
critique, or prohibit debate?” (Engels to Gerson Trier, 18th December,

3. <> [editorial
note:“books have their fate”]

4. <> Cf. Marx to
Engels, 20th January, 1864; 24th April, 1867. Engels to E. Bernstein, 23rd
April, 1883. There are even instances in which the two friends are spoken of
as if they acted as a single person: for example “Marx and Engels says” (see
Marx to Engels August 1st, 1856.)

5. <> See, for
example, the opposition that Iring Fetscher established between Marx’s
“philosophy of the proletariat”, and that of Engels. Fetscher explores their
different ways of envisaging the “negation of philosophy” and the relation
of human history to nature in the conception – which was unacceptable for
Marx – of an objective dialectics of nature, and of thought as a reflection
of reality. See I. Fetscher, Karl Marx und der Marxismus. Von der
Philosophie des Proletariats zur proletarischen Weltanschauung, Munchen,
1987, p. 182 ff. See also Donald C. Hodges, “Engels’s Contribution to
Marxism”, The Socialist Register, 1965, p. 297-810, and Vladimir Hosky, “Der
neue Mensch in theologischer und marxisticher Anthropologie”
Marxismusstudien, VII, 1972, p. 58-86.

6. <> See Karl
Korsch, “Dix thèses sur le marxisme aujourd’hui”, Arguments III, no. 16,
1959, p. 26 ff. The mimeograph of this text supports the date Zurich, 4th
September, 1950. [editorial note – a translation of this text is available: Ten
Theses on Marxism

7. <> Engels
specifies that this declaration was made by Marx with regards to the
“Marxism” which was rampant between 1879-1880 “amongst certain of the
French”, but the blame also applies to a group of intellectuals and students
within the German party; they, together with the opposition press, exhibited
a distorted and disfigured “Marxism” (see Engels’s letter to the editors of
Socialdemokrat, 7th September 1890, published in the journal, 18th September
1890). This quip of Marx’s, so full of foreboding, was reported by Engels
every time the occasion arose; see his letters to Bernstein, 3rd November,
1882 <>,
to Carl Schmidt, 5th August,
and to Paul Lafargue, 27th August, 1890. G. A. Lopatine, the Russian
revolutionary, met Engels to discuss the perspectives for Russian revolution
in September 1883. He recounted some details of their talks in a letter to a
member of the Norodnaiia Voliia containing the passage: “You should remember
what I told you once – that Marx himself was never a Marxist. Engels
reported that at the time of the struggle of Brousse, Malon, and Cie against
the others, Marx said with laughter one day that ‘I can say just one thing;
that I am not a Marxist!’” See the extract from Lopatine’s letter to M. N.
Oshanina of 20th September, 1888, translated from Russian, in
Marx-Engels-Werke 21, p. 489. However, there is no humorous tone to Marx’s
letters to his friend when, on a trip to France, he communicated his
impressions of the arguments of the socialists in the competing congresses
of the Possibilists in Saint-Etienne, and the Guesdists in Roanne in Autumn
1882. “The Marxists and the anti-Marxists”, he wrote, “both types have done
their best to ruin my trip to France” (Marx to Engels, September 30th,
1882). On his disagreement with the Russian ‘Marxists’, see Marx to Vera
Zasulich, 1881<>,
on the possibilities of the Russian peasant commune. On the relations
between Marx and Engels and their Russian disciples, see Die russische
Kommune. Kritik eines Mythos, Herausgegeben von M. Rubel, Carl Hanser
Verlag, Munich, 1972.

8. <> The formal
declarations of Engels in this respect are too numerous to be recounted
here. Let us say simply that there is not the slightest doubt regarding the
paternity of the great scientific discoveries, which are all, without
exception, attributable only to Marx. Of all his declarations, the most
significant is perhaps the note inserted by Engels in a writing which was to
demonstrate the continuity of German philosophy in elevating its most
dignified inheritor, Karl Marx, to the rank of founder of a system. See
Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy,
It is in this work that Engels made the official gesture of baptising the
theory with Marx’s name: “Out of the dissolution of the Hegelian school,
however, there developed still another tendency, the only one which has
borne real fruit. And this tendency is essentially connected with the name
of Marx.” Engels repeated this act in the note where he remarks that “What
Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. [...] Marx was a genius; we
others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far
what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name.” We should not then
be surprised at the conclusion to this critique, which consecrates Marx as
both inheritor and founder of a philosophical school: “The German
working-class movement is the inheritor of German classical philosophy.”
Engels had thus cast the die.

9. <> Engels to
Lafargue, 11th May,
Once engaged in this verbal concession, Engels could no longer back out, and
he had to go all the way. His mind was made up the moment he felt assured of
the triumph of the collectivists led by Guesde and Lafargue: “But the
advantage gained over the anarchists after 1873 was put into question by
their successors, and I did not therefore have a choice. Now that we are
victorious, we have proved to the world that almost all of the socialists in
Europe are ‘Marxists’. It will drive them crazy that they gave us that name
and they will be left with Hyndman to console them” (Engels to Laura
Lafargue. 11 June,
Ironically it is precisely the same Hyndman whom Marx had advised against
referring to his name in the program of the new English party. “In the party
programs we should avoid everything which leads to the appearance of a
direct dependence on a particular author or a particular book” (Marx to
Henry Mayers Hyndman, 2 July, 1881).

10. <> Letter to the
editors of the *Berliner Volksblat*, 5th December, 1890.

11. <> “You know,
primo, that I am always slower in getting onto things and, secundo, that I
follow in your footsteps.” (Marx to Engels, 4th July, 1864).

12. <> See M. Rubel,
Introduction to Karl Marx, Oeuvres: Economie II, Gallimard, Paris, 1968. See
ibid. p. CXXVII ff., for the list of the discoveries which Marx regarded as
being his own. Marx attributed to himself neither the founding of historical
materialism, nor the discovery of surplus value. However, this attribution –
an act of Engels’s – was tacitly approved by Marx. See, for example, the
account given by Engels in *Das Volk*, 1859, and the biographical article on
Marx <> in *
Volkskalendar* 1877.