Commentary: Anti-Dhring: Morality is Class Morality

By: The FHE Team

Formerly known as Herr Eugen Dhring’s Revolution in Science, Engels Anti-Dhring is a popular and enduring work which, as Engels wrote to Marx, was an attempt to produce an encyclopaedic survey of our conception of the philosophical, natural-science and historical problems.

In 1880 Engels took three chapters of Anti-Dhring and created one would become one of the most popular socialist pamphlets in the world: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific in which Engels points out that early socialists were Enlightenment rationalists who sought not “to emancipate a particular class, but all humanity at once.” Engels observes that the socialists were wedded to an abstraction called “Man,” and that, in effect, their critique of capitalism came from without the logic of capitalist social relations.

Marx and Engels differed from the utopian socialists not in terms of their visionary goals, but on the basis of theoretical paradigms about how such goals might be achieved. The socialists were “utopian” (in the bad sense of the word) in the way that they believed socialism might come about. Engles believed class struggle was inevitable.

What of the new classes we might create by restricting the availability of human advancement technologies? Are the bio-luddites creating the very future thay seek to avoid? Is class struggle inevitable? Despite the failed communist experiment, are the fundemental principles of social change constant? Put your evolutionary spectacles on for a fresh look at Engles…

Original Work by Friedrich Engels

The conceptions of good and bad have varied so much from nation to nation and from age to age that they have often been in direct contradiction to each other. But all the same, someone may object, good is not bad and bad is not good; if good is confused with bad there is an end to all morality, and everyone can do and leave undone whatever he cares. This is also, stripped of his oracular phrases, Herr Duhring’s opinion. But the matter cannot be so simply disposed of. If it was such an easy business there would certainly be no dispute at all over good and bad; everyone would know what was good and what was bad. But how do things stand today? What morality is preached to us today? There is first Christian-feudal morality, inherited from past centuries of faith; and this again has two main subdivisions, Catholic and Protestant moralities, each of which in turn has no lack of further subdivisions from the Jesuit-Catholic and Orthodox-Protestant to loose “advanced” moralities. Alongside of these we find the modern bourgeois morality and with it too the proletarian morality of the future, so that in the most advanced European countries alone the past, present and future provide three great groups of moral theories which are in force simultaneously and alongside of each other. Which is then the true one? Not one of them, in the sense of having absolute validity; but certainly that morality which contains the maximum of durable elements is the one which, in the present, represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future: that is, the proletarian.

But when we see that the three classes of modern society, the feudal aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, each have their special morality, we can only draw the one conclusion, that men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their moral ideas in the last resort from the practical relations on which they carry on production and exchange.

But nevertheless there is much that is common to the three moral theories mentioned above — is this not a least a portion of a morality which is externally fixed? These moral theories represent three different stages of the same historical development, and have therefore a common historical background, and for that reason alone they necessarily have much in common. Even more. In similar or approximately similar stages of economic development moral theories must of necessity be more or less in agreement. From the moment when private property in movable objects developed, in all societies in which this private property existed there must be this moral law in common: Thou shalt not steal. Does this law thereby become an eternal moral law? By no means. In a society in which the motive of stealing has been done away with, in which therefore at the very most only lunatics would ever steal, how the teacher of morals would be laughed at who tried solemnly to proclaim the eternal truth: Thou shalt not steal!

We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate and forever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed.

Excerpted from Revolution in Science, by Friedrich Engels