Engels on the State, Family, Education, and Sex

In the last chapter of his book Anti-Dühring, Engels treats of the state, family, education and sex by critiquing the views of the German “socialist” and professor Eugen Dühring’s on these subjects. Dühring had created, on paper, a complete system of socialist governing through means of collectives which, Engels has pointed out in his analysis in earlier parts of this book, is completely unworkable and perpetuates the capitalist relations of production and distribution which socialism is supposed to abolish.

Having set up his system Dühring undertakes to discuss the nature of the “state of the future.” His ideas are, Engels maintains, watered down simplifications of notions he has gleaned from Rousseau and Hegel. In his own words, Dühring bases his state on the “sovereignty of the people.” He explains what he means in the following passage of essentially meaningless mumbo jumbo:

If one presupposes agreements between each individual and every other individual in all directions, and if the object of these agreements is mutual aid against unjust offenses– the the power required for the maintenance of right is only strengthened, and right is not deduced from the more superior strength of the many against the individual or of the majority against the minority.

Don’t worry if that passage doesn’t make any sense as Dühring adds the following to explicate it. He says, “The slightest error in the conception of the role of the collective will would destroy the sovereignty of the individual, and this sovereignty is the only thing conducive to the deduction of real rights.” Engels thinks this pretty “thick” even by the standards of Dühring’s so called “philosophy of reality.”

This is especially so since the “sovereignty of the individual” consists in the fact that he or she is, Dühring says, “Subject to absolute compulsioin by the state.” This is because the state “serves natural justice” and that is the best guarantee of individual sovereignty. There will be a police force for internal security and an army as well — to enforce the will of the state — which is the same as that of the community of sovereign individuals and to ensure people don’t use their sovereignty in an incorrect and un-sovereign manner. And just in case the state makes an error, well, the citizens will still be better off than they would have been if left in the state of nature! Anyway, they will get free lawyers to boot.

Since Dühring says his new state is based on “sober and critical thought”, he announces that religion will be banished from the commune.” In the free society,” he says, “there can be no religious worship; for every member of it has got beyond the primitive childish superstition that there are beings, behind nature or above it, who can be influenced by sacrifices or prayers. [A] socialitarian system, rightly conceived, has therefore … to abolish all the paraphernalia of religious magic, and therewith all the essential elements of religious worship.”

It is important to note, since in the real history of socialism in the twentieth century, some socialist and communist states tried to eliminate religion and religious practices by forceable means, that this idea ["the state has to…"] comes from Dühring, an enemy of the Marxist outlook, and not from anything Marx or Engels had to say. Engels explicitly criticizes this view.

This is not to say Marx and Engels were in any way “soft” on religion ["opium of the masses" and all that] but they respected “individual sovereignty” enough not to dream of using the “state’ [which they wanted to abolish in any case] to trample on people’s rights of conscience in religious affairs.

At this point Engels adds a succinct account of the Marxist view of the origin, social function, and future of religion. It is more or less as follows. Religion is just a reflection in the brains of people of the forces in the external world that are out of their control which affect their lives and that they imagine as supernatural beings which they need to fear and placate. Originally these were the powers of nature that took on the guise of gods and goddess, but as human society progressed and evolved social forces also came to assume these roles. Over time, in the West at least, the many gods and goddess representing these alien powers were distilled down to one god [monotheism; e.g., Jews and Moslems, or three gods posing as one as in the Jewish-pagan synthesis called Christianity- tr] and in this form religion will have a lease on life as long as humans are dominated by natural and social powers they neither understand nor control.

In contemporary capitalist society people are dominated and controlled by an economic system that they have themselves made yet rules over them as if it were an independently existing power beyond their control. The Market– made by humans, rules humans. This is essentially the same reification as is found in religion, and it reinforces religious attitudes and beliefs already historically present in modern society. Engels thinks of this development as the First Act of human development. It is now time for the Second Act.

In the Second Act humans will take control of the means of production and distribution which they have created over the long ages [thereby hangs a tale] and by means of scientific understanding and advance be able to control them rather than being controlled by them. Science will also explain the origins of life, the workings of nature, and the role of humans, leading to advances in medicine, agriculture, education, etc., so that humans will seek to understand the world instead of bowing down before it in stupefaction.

Engels says “only then will the last alien force which is still reflected in religion vanish: and with it will also vanish the religious reflection itself, for the simple reason that then there will be nothing left to reflect.” Dühring can’t wait and wants to administratively abolish religion before humanity has reached the intellectual and social level where it will of its own accord fade away. This will only inflame resistance, antagonize the masses, and strengthen the hold of superstition over the brains of people by giving it “a prolonged lease of life.” I might add, if some of the socialists and communists of the past century, let alone this one, would have taken Engels to heart many mistakes and tragedies could have been avoided.

After Herr Dühring has disposed of religion he tells us that “man, made to rely solely on himself and nature and matured in the knowledge of his collective powers, can intrepidly enter on all the roads which the course of events and his own being open to him.” Fine. Let us see how “man” travels down these roads. First he is born. Then he, or she as the case may be, is under the control of his mother the “natural tutor of children” until puberty (about 14 years) when the role of the father kicks in, as long as “real and uncontested paternity” can be demonstrated. If not a guardian is appointed. Ancient Roman law serves Dühring as a model for these ideas.

This shows, Engels says, that Dühring has no sense of history. The family, for him, is immutable, basically the same in Ancient Rome as in modern capitalism with no allowance for the changes in economic conditions and social relations between the ancient world and contemporary world. Engels then quotes the following passage from Volume One of Das Kapital to show the superiority of Marx’s outlook to Dühring’s. Marx wrote that “modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes [due to the rise of the working class movement capitalism's urge to exploit children in the productive process has been somewhat curtailed-- tr] creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and the relations between the sexes.”

This new form is still in the process of creation, but there is no going back to the Ancient Roman family, nor even, as our Republican politicians are learning to their chagrin, to the patriarchal family of the Christian Middle Ages — so beloved by the reactionary classes in our country.

Dühring next informs us that “Every dreamer of social reforms naturally has ready a pedagogy corresponding to his new social life.” He may think he is putting others down and himself coming up with a truly scientific plan for the educational needs of society, for the “foreseeable future”, but he is actually a worse dreamer than those he opposes, according to Engels.

In the schools of Dühring’s future cooperative society the children will, Dühring writes, learn “everything which by itself and in principle can have any attraction for man” and so will include “the foundations and main conclusions of all sciences touching on the understanding of the world and of life.” Dühring also tells us he sees in outline all the textbooks of the future but he is personally unable to actually see their contents and just what the children will be learning as that “can only really be expected from the free and enhanced forces of the new social order.” But they will concentrate on physics, math, astronomy and mechanics while biology, botany, and zoology and such will be “topics for light conversation” [!]. He completely forgets to say anything about chemistry. Engels says his knowledge of the sciences seems to be confined to Natural History for Children — a popular book of the 18th Century by Georg Christian Raff (1748-1788).

When it comes to the humanities, Dühring sounds like a second rate Plato. He wants to ban, for example, the great artistic creations of the past because too many of them have religious themes. As Plato banned Homer for portraying the Gods with human flaws, so Goethe is banned by Dühring for “poetic mysticism” and others for any religious content at all — since religion is banned completely in the future state.

American monoglot educators will appreciate Herr Dühring’s attitude to foreign languages. Latin and Greek will be junked entirely — who needs dead languages? Living foreign languages “will remain of secondary importance” and the students will really concentrate on their own native tongue. Engels thinks this is a way to perpetuate the dulling national narrow mindedness of people who are basically ignorant of the world and of the Other. Latin and Greek actually open up people’s minds to a broader perspective of the world and history, at least if they have a classical education, and learning foreign modern languages also allows peoples to have greater understanding of others and their cultures. Dühring’s views are those of the narrow minded Prussian Philistine and similar to the “English only” bigotry found on the right in this country.

Engels gives Dühring credit for at least being aware of the fact there will be a difference between educational policies under socialism and those currently employed in bourgeois society, but since he keeps capitalist relations of production in place in his future communal society he can’t quite figure out what those policies will be. Thus he is reduced to coming up with such ideas as “young and old will work in the serious sense of the word” which, along with other empty phrases, Engels calls “spineless and meaningless ranting.”

Engels counterpoises a brief comment on socialist education from volume one of Das Kapital where Marx says that “from the Factory system budded, as Robert Owen has shown in detail, the germ of the education of the future, an education that will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.” Our own educational system, which produces dropouts and graduates functional illiterates, is American capitalism’s answer to what education will be in the future.

Finally, after we find out how children will be educated in Dühring’s future society, we find out how they are to come into the world. Dühring, no doubt inspired by Plato’s Republic, tells us that future humans must be “sought in sexual union and selection, and furthermore in the care taken for or against the ensuring of certain results.” We are here on the road to Dühringean eugenics. The most important thing to keep in mind about the future births is not the number but “whether nature or human circumspection succeeded or failed in regard to their quality.” This leads Dühring to conclude that “It is obviously an advantage to prevent the birth of a human being who would only be a defective creature.”

Modern scientific sentiment would not reject this conclusion out of hand, regardless of the feelings of those blinded by religious prejudices or logically challenged. It all depends on the kinds of defects that are presented. Dühring is thinking, however, along lines made popular by Nietzsche, of some sort of super human race compared to the run of the mill humans that unaided Nature tends to produce.

Dühring believes in a human right which may be important, but is not generally appealed to these days, for the purposes of eugenics; i.e., “the right of the unborn world to the best possible composition” [biologically-- tr]. “Conception,” he says, “and, if need be, also birth [infanticide- tr] offer the opportunity , or in exceptional cases selective, care in this connection.” Dühring is not just talking about medical defects– but also “aesthetic” defects.

He thinks, in fact, that people should be bred to look like the ancient Greeks! “Grecian art — the idealization of man in marble [not "European" man but "man"]– will not be able to retain its historical importance when the less artistic, and therefore from the standpoint of the fate of the millions, far more important task of perfecting the human form in flesh and blood is taken in hand.” OK, so we won’t all look like Antinous or the Venus de Milo but that goal will be a work in progress for the future Dühringean society.

How does Dühring bring about the this perfection of the human [ancient Greeks-- Dühring had no use for modern Greeks] form? Well, he says force would be harmful but it will come about as a natural result of the mating of beautiful people– sort of by an “invisible hand” (but in this case a different anatomical feature will be at work). Here is Dühring’s quote: [From the] “higher, genuinely human motives of wholesome sexual unions … the humanly ennobled form of sexual excitement , which in its intense manifestations is passionate love, when reciprocated is the best guarantee of a union which will be acceptable also in its result…. It is only an effect of the second order that from a relation which in itself is harmonious a symphoniously composed product should result.”

Engels thinks Dühring’s views on sex are “twaddle.” This is because force would have to be used to make sure all unions were “wholesome” by Dühring’s standards. In the real world it is not just the beautiful people who fall in love and have children (symphoniously composed products) but all kinds of people so “the second order” effects of lovemaking would be the same in the future communal state of Herr Dühring as they are now. [He could, however, try for a rigged lottery a la Plato's Republic to match up the "best" people and only allow those with baby licenses to reproduce. This would lead to more problems than the Chinese have had with the one child policy -- which was successful in limiting population numbers but a failure from the point of view of creating balanced population growth.]

Engels also critiques Dühring’s “noble ideas about the female sex in general”[prostitution is a normal activity due to the constraints of bourgeois marriage]– but both Dühring’s ideas and Engel’s response are too shaped by nineteenth century conditions to be applicable to twenty-first century advanced industrial societies so I will pass this topic by and come to the conclusion of Anti-Dühring.

After having gone over all the major views that Dühring had presented in a series of writings over the years, and refuting them by giving a proper Marxist response to his mixed up theoretical constructions, Engels sums up Dühring’s oeuvre as being the product of mental incompetence due to megalomania.

Postscript: Eugen Dühring survived Engel’s critique and wrote more books and articles. In the 1880′s he began turning out anti-Semitic writings some of which led Theodor Hertzel to conclude that the Jews needed their own state. Frederick Nietzsche’s rantings against socialism were the result of his having read Dühring’s works not those of Marx and Engels (although I doubt it would have made any difference). Of his many books only one has been translated into English — his anti-Semitic tract on the Jewish question was published in 1997 as Eugen Dühring on the Jews by 1984 Press. Dühring died in 1921 thus being deprived of seeing the fruits of his anti-Semitic labors. These and other interesting facts about Dühring are to be found in the Wikipedia article “Eugen Dühring.”

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.