Marx Myths and Legends. Maximilien Rubel

The Legend of Marx, or “Engels the founder”

Source: Rubeloriginally prepared his “Gesichtspunkte zum thema ‘Engels alsBegründer’” as a paper in Germanfor the “Internationale wissenschaftliche Engels-Konferenz” of May 1970in Wuppertal, but first published it in French in 1972 as “LaLégende de Marx ou Engels fondateur” in Études deMarxology, Série S, No. 5. Socialisme : Science et Ethique. Thisversion istranslated from the French by Rob Lucas for “Marx Myths and Legends”and is covered by the CreativeCommons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Note from the author

In May 1970, upon the occasion of the 150th anniversaryof the birth of Friedrich Engels, the town of Wuppertal had organisedan international scientific conference. This occasion brought togetheraround 50 specialists from more than 10 European countries, as well asIsrael and the United States whose task was to take stock of modernresearch on the thought of he who is universally taken to be, alongsidehis friend Karl Marx, one of the founders of “Marxism”. Invited toparticipate in this conference, I intended to submit as a text for thediscussion a series of critical theses centred on the theme of Engels’sresponsibility for the genesis of the dominant ideology of the 20thcentury: ‘Marxism’. It had seemed to me normal and urgent to share mycritical reservations, in the context of a more ‘scientific’ thancommemorative event, to an audience informed of the problems in theevolution of ideas in relation to the events and upheavals that havemarked the 20th Century. I had therefore presented the organisers adocument in 8 points, written in German, which I had titled“Gesichtspunkte zum thema ‘Engels als Begründer’”.

To my surprise, upon arrival in Wuppertal, I wasreceived by the conference officials who informed me of a certainpredicament: my Soviet and East German colleagues, being personallyoffended when reading my “Viewpoints”, were threatening to leave theconference if my contribution was not retracted from the debate! Afterlaborious negotiation we came to an agreement on a formula which seemedlikely to calm the irritation of these ‘scientific’ representativesfrom ‘socialist’ countries: the texts would no longer be read from theplatform, but merely commented upon and discussed. It would be temptingto recount the details of the debate if the objections had merited theterm ‘scientific’, and if the behaviour of certain participants hadn’ttranslated as a complete refusal to engage in a discussion that riskedputting in question the range of ideological positions of‘marxism-leninism’. At the same time, this obstinate if not insultingrefusal, was enough to confirm to the eyes of an impartial observer thefundamental criticism that can be directed at the use of this conceptof ‘Marxism’, the erroneous use of which was precisely what my“Viewpoints” denounced[1].

The epilogue to this conference was to further underlinethe solid grounding of a critique which, in the form of a simplesemantic reflection, in fact represented a defence of Marx’s socialtheory in opposition to Marxist mythology. As it turned out, theorganisers were not afraid of avoiding the elementary rules ofeditorial policy generally respected in ‘bourgeois’ democracies: thetext (submitted at the request of the officials) was not included inthe volume of collected contributions that were submitted prior to theconference[2].Habent sua fatalibelli... [3]

We here present a translation of the text refused by theconference at Wuppertal, with some supporting commentary.

Viewpoints on the Theme of “Engels the Founder”

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


Marxism did not enter the world as an authentic productof Karl Marx’s way of thinking, but was conceived in Friedrich Engels’mind. Insofar as the term ‘marxism’ conceals a rational concept, it isnot Marx but Engels who carries the responsibility; and if today Marx’sargument retains a priority, it is principally related to problems forwhich Engels did not find more than a partial solution, or with whichhe did not concern himself. Therefore, if these problems can beresolved at all, this can only be with the help of Marx himself. By nomeans does this mean that Engels must be excluded from discussion, butit is legitimate to question the extent to which he should be takeninto account in any dealings with the writings of Marx which escapedhis attention. In more general terms the question can be thusformulated: what are the limits of Engels’ competence in his role asuncontested executor of Marx’s intellectual legacy, to which we stillappeal to elucidate the material and ethical problems of our time?


This interrogation must examine a central problem – thatof the intellectual relationship between Marx and Engels, ‘founders’ ofa collection of ideological and political concepts artificially groupedunder the name ‘marxism’. The fact that this question must be poseditself reveals a very characteristic phenomenon of our epoch, which onemight now call the ‘myth of the 20th Century’. We should recall thatthe ‘founders’ sometimes themselves evoked mythological interpretationto underline the peculiar character of their friendship andintellectual collaboration: Marx was not being ironic in invoking theexampleof antique “Dioscures” or that of Orestes and Pylade, whilst Engelsmocked the rumour according to which “Ahriman-Marx” had led“Ormuzd-Engels” astray[4].There is equally an opposite tendency, withincreasingly frequent efforts to oppose Marx to Engels: the first wouldbe the ‘true’ founder, the second reduced to the rank of mere‘pseudo-dialectician’[5].


Any investigation into the relationship between Marx andEngels is in advance destined to fail if it does not clear away thelegend of the ‘foundation’ and does not take for a methodological pointof departure the aporia of the concept of Marxism. It was the meritof Karl Korsch, when twenty years ago at the threshold of a radicalrevision of his intellectual positions, to have attempted a critique ofMarxism which amounted to a declaration of war. However, Korsch simplydid not dare commit the act of sweeping away the concept of Marxism andit’s mythological residues. Instead, he tried to remove this difficultythrough the usage of linguistic artifices destined to conserve and tosave the “important elements of the Marxist doctrine” with a view tothe “reconstruction of a revolutionary theory and practice”. In his“TenTheses on Marxism Today” Korsch moves indiscriminately betweenspeaking 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 ofthe socialist movement, Korsch goes so far as to omit the name ofEngels, the alter ego of Marx! Yet he was not far from the truth whenhe wrote:

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

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


In view of the impossibility of rationally defining themeaning of the concept of Marxism, it seems logical to abandon the worditself, yet it is so commonly and so universally employed. This term,degraded to the point of merely being a mystificatory slogan, carriedfrom its birth the stigma of obscurantism. Marx struggled hard to undothis when, in the last years of his life, his reputation had broken thewall of silence which surrounded his work, and he made this categoricaldeclaration: “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pasMarxiste”[7].However revealing, the fact that Engels bequeathed this warning toposterity does not relieve him of the responsibility of having given into the temptation of lending the stamp of his authority to thisunjustifiable term. Charged with being the guardian and the perpetuatorof a theory, the elaboration of which he admitted to not havingcontributed more than a modest part[8], and glorifying Marx’s name in anattempt to repair the damage, Engels inadvertently promoted the genesisof a superstition, the negative consequences of which he could not haveknown. Today, sixty years after his death, his efforts are perfectlyclear. When Engels decided to appropriate the terms ‘marxist’ and‘marxism’ from his adversaries in order to change a hostile name into aname of honour, he could hardly have expected that, through thisgesture of defiance (or was it resignation?), he would become thegodfather of a mythology destined to dominate the twentieth century.


The genesis of Marxist myth can be traced to theconflicts within the International. The need to hurl abuse at theopponent and their partisans made the ‘anti-authoritarians’, withBakunin at their head, inventive enough to create such terms as‘marxites’, ‘marxists’, and ‘marxism’. Gradually Marx’s disciples inFrance developed the habit of accepting these denominations which theyhad not created and which destined them to be distinguished from othersocialist factions, so that finally these terms became political andideological labels. From then on only the authority of Engels wasnecessary to sanction the usage of these terms, the ambiguity of whichmay not have been evident to those who used them. Engels was from theoutset energetically hostile to their usage; he knew better than anyonethat it risked corrupting the profound significance of a teaching thatshould have been considered the theoretical expression of a socialmovement and by no means as a doctrine invented by an individual forthe benefit of an intellectual elite. His resistance did not weakenuntil when, in 1889, the dissent between, on one hand the‘possibilists’, ‘blanquistes’ and ‘broussistes’, and on the other handthe ‘collectivists’ and ‘guesdistes’, threatened to cause a rupture inthe movement in France, each faction having decided to organize its owninternational Workers’ Congress. Engels’ predicament is obvious; heattempted to avert danger of confusion and of verbal and ideologicalcorruption by using inverted commas to speak of “Marxists” and of“Marxism”, and by speaking of “so-called Marxists”. When Paul Lafargueexpressed his apprehension in seeing his group pass for a “faction”amongst others in the Workers Movement, Engels replied “we have nevercalled you anything other than the ‘so-called Marxists’ and I cannotknow what to call you otherwise. If you have another name as short,tell us and we will duly call you that with pleasure.”[9]


If Nietzsche published Ecce Homo for fear of one daybeing canonized by disciples for which he did not at all wish, the sameprecaution did not seem necessary in the case of Marx, even though hehad not written and published more than a fragment of his projectedoeuvre. Nevertheless, the printed and unpublished material which he hadbequeathed to posterity amounted to a rigorous formal prohibitionagainst linking his name to the cause for which he had fought, and to ateaching for which he believed himself mandated by the anonymous massof the modern proletariat. If Engels had respected this prohibition asMarx’s executor, and had applied his veto to the abusive term, theuniversal 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’. Itis tempting to see it as the punishment of destiny that, believinghimself heir, he was in truth the founder – albeit involuntarily – of‘Marxism’. The “irony of history” which Engels loved to invoke hadplayed a cruel trick on him. He thus became a prophet in spite ofhimself when on his 70th birthday he pronounced the regretful words:“my destiny willed that I harvest the honour and the glory sowed by agreater man than I; Karl Marx”[10]. For his 150th anniversary, we mustacknowledge in Engels the contestable merit and the more dubious titleof ‘founder of Marxism’.


In the history of Marxism and the cult of Marx, Engelsis at the forefront. We are familiar enough with the human andquasi-religious aspect of this friendship, which does not requireparticular analysis. On the other hand, what necessitates a thoroughexamination is the effect of the friendship as much upon Marx himselfas on his epigones and his distant disciples. Always ready to act aspioneer of Marx’s theories, Engels expressed many ideas which Marxcould not, of course, accept without critique; the silence of Marx canbe explained by his desire to scrupulously respect the solidarity whichhe held with his friend. We cannot confirm the extent to which heshouldbe identified with everything that Engels had said or written, but thisproblem is minor, considering his acknowledged admiration for theintellectual gifts of his friend: after all, he considered himselfEngels’ disciple[11].That which Marx did not allow himself has todaybecome a strict duty: we must break the bewitching charm of thislegend, and determine the place of Engels’ oeuvre in the development ofthe intellectual inheritance of socialism, in relation to the destinyof the workers’ movement.


It is only if one understands that Engels had themakings of a founder that one will grasp the reasons for which he wentabout the duties of editor and perpetuator of the manuscripts of Marxin a manner which, today more than ever, demands some critique[12]. 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 theintroduction to a debate whose essential theme must be the problem ofMarxism as the mythology of our era. The question of the extent towhich Engels can be held responsible for the genesis of this universalsuperstition is secondary to the extent that we can affirm, if werecognize the teaching of Marx the ‘materialist’, that ideologies-amongst which Marxism in all its variants should be placed – do not fallfrom the sky; they are essentially bound to the class interests whichare at the same time the interests of power. It is enough to recognizein Engels the legitimate inheritor of Marx’s thought to denounce in hisname and to his honour, the established ‘Marxism’ as a school ofconfusion 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 WissenschaftlicheKorrespondenz 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 wissenschaftlicheKonferenz in Wuppertal vom 25-29 Mai 1970, Hannover, Verlag fürLiteratur und Zeitgeschehen, 1970.

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

“In order to fulfill the program of the final day, the council ofthe conference had decided to give up the discussion after the 6th session,and to begin after the 7th with the general debate. Firstly, MaximilienRubel was supposed to have continued (?) to expound his conception. Hesubmitted a text to the conference which was a polemical formulation againstEngels, but did not then present this text before the assembly (withgood reason!). These 8 theses which were, in accordance with theauthor’s intention, to provoke a debate on the actual significance ofMarxism, may be summarised as follows: after Marx’s death, Engels madegreat efforts to elevate the term ‘Marxism’ formed by Marx’sadversaries, to the rank of an intelligible and definable concept. Indoing this, Engels became the founder of a hybrid system of thoughtwhich was alien to the intentions of Marx himself. After the death ofEngels, the ideological germs of this system were transformed into aconceptual methodology necessarily dependent upon certain classconditions.” [p. 255 ff.]

The report then mentions a polemic in opposition to mine, from apreceding session, from an East-German Marxist, about the concept of a“historic mission”, a controversy, “in which Engels did not play morethan 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 simplyaffirm, however, that my text “against Engels” was simply the critiqueof a historically negative act by the closest and most activecollaborator of Marx, and against a certain school of Marxist thought,the existence of which constitutes the negation of all that Marx andEngels themselves did for socialist thought and the workers movement. Icontinue to believe that my contribution responded, more than anyother, to the true ‘scientific’ spirit of that conference, in thememory of he who invented the notion of ‘scientific socialism’, and whoequally identified this notion with ‘critical socialism’. Theconference could not offer a real homage to the man whom it intended tocelebrate if it did not take as a guiding thread in its debates thesewords of Engels’:

“The workers movement rests on the most rigorous critique ofexisting society. The critique is the vital element. How could it absent itselffrom critique, or prohibit debate?” (Engels to Gerson Trier, 18thDecember, 1889).

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 twofriends 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 betweenMarx’s “philosophy of the proletariat”, and that of Engels. Fetscherexplores their different ways of envisaging the “negation ofphilosophy” and the relation of human history to nature in theconception – which was unacceptable for Marx – of an objective dialecticsof nature, and of thought as a reflection of reality. See I. Fetscher,Karl Marx und der Marxismus. Von der Philosophie des Proletariats zurproletarischen Weltanschauung, Munchen, 1987, p. 182 ff. See alsoDonald C. Hodges, “Engels’s Contribution to Marxism”, The SocialistRegister, 1965, p. 297-810, and Vladimir Hosky, “Der neue Mensch intheologischer 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: TenTheses on Marxism Today]

7. Engels specifies that this declaration wasmade by Marx with regards to the “Marxism” which was rampant between1879-1880 “amongst certain of the French”, but the blame also appliesto a group of intellectuals and students within the German party; they,together with the opposition press, exhibited a distorted anddisfigured “Marxism” (see Engels’s letter to the editors of Socialdemokrat, 7thSeptember 1890, published in the journal, 18th September 1890). Thisquip of Marx’s, so full of foreboding, was reported by Engels everytime the occasion arose; see his letters to Bernstein, 3rd November,1882, to Carl Schmidt, 5th August, 1890, 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. Herecounted some details of their talks in a letter to a member of theNorodnaiia Voliia containing the passage: “You should remember what Itold you once – that Marx himself was never a Marxist. Engels reportedthat at the time of the struggle of Brousse, Malon, and Cie against theothers, 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, inMarx-Engels-Werke 21, p. 489.However, there is no humorous tone to Marx’s letters to his friendwhen, on a trip to France, he communicated his impressions of thearguments of the socialists in the competing congresses of thePossibilists in Saint-Etienne, and the Guesdists in Roanne in Autumn1882. “The Marxists and the anti-Marxists”, he wrote, “both types havedone their best to ruin my trip to France” (Marx to Engels, September30th, 1882). On his disagreement with the Russian ‘Marxists’, see Marx to Vera Zasulich, 1881, on the possibilities of the Russian peasantcommune. Onthe 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 thisrespect 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, attributableonly 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 dignifiedinheritor, Karl Marx, to the rank of founder of a system. See Engels,Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1888. 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, 1889. 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, 1889). 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.