Engels as a critic of political economy

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Friedrich Engels helps us to reinforce the proletarian and communist strategy


This article aims to raise some points of debate around the contributions of Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in the classic 1843 pamphlet, Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie.[I] The thought-provoking formulation of the young Engels was originally published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, a periodical published in Paris in February 1844, organized by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Arnold Ruge (1802-1880).

in the elaboration engelsiana, the study of Classical Political Economy, based mainly on theorists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John MacCulloch, James Mill, and others, was presented as a priority area. The "Genial Sketch" among many accomplishments, played the role of defining the directions of Marx's investigations and of the project of criticism of political economy developed by both, whose maximum expression was given in The capital (1867)

No Outline, Executing the first steps in the study and critique of that new branch of scientific knowledge, Engels declared that “political economy arose as a natural consequence of the expansion of commerce, and with it there emerged an elaborate system of consenting frauds, a complete science in favor of enrichment has replaced simple, unscientific exchange.” (ENGELS, 2010, p. 418).

The works of Avelãs Nunes (2020a), (2020b) show, from an anti-manual perspective, the historical process of political economy, highlighting its origins and development as a science linked to the interests of the revolutionary bourgeoisie in the process of fighting against medieval scholastic thought, the old regime and the feudal mode of production. In this sense, they contribute to reflect that, as a scientific field, regardless of moral. right and political, classical political economy was based on philosophical, economic, political and ideological roots.

On a philosophical level, the debates that took place within the scope of the Enlightenment movement of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, as a result of rationalism and the philosophy of natural law (jusnaturalism), contributed significantly to its constitution. On the economic (and political) level, the transformations in agriculture, commerce and industry resulting from the bourgeois revolutions, allowed the overcoming of the status of serfdom and the further advent and consolidation of capitalism, based on the “so-called primitive accumulation of capital” ( or original accumulation), so well described by Marx in The capital. On the ideological level, the flag of liberalism, based on the idea of ​​an autonomous natural economic order and individualism, began to demarcate the territory of economic reflection, which, linked to the interests of the bourgeois class, postulated the intransigent defense of private property and capital accumulation .

Certainly, political economy as a social theory is a social product, emerging from the development of historical-concrete conditions. The birth of economic science, which, historically inscribed throughout the XNUMXth, XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, whose crisis and decay occurred in the XNUMXth century, represented the result of the long and complex transition established from the crisis of ancien régime, which culminated in the advent and consolidation of the capitalist mode of production.

The period from 1820 to 1830 stood out for its scientific vivacity in the field of political economy. However, this scenario has begun to change. The process of crisis and decay of classical political economy occurred due to a double process related to the determinations of the economic crisis of capitalism from 1825 and the subsequent outbreak of revolutions in the western and central part of the European continent in 1848.

Thus, Marx considered David Ricardo as the last great representative of classical political economy, a theorist who in those historical circumstances, contrary to understanding the capitalist bourgeois order as a historically transitory stage of evolution, started to consider capital and capitalism as the last and most important configuration. absolute control of social production and reproduction. Thus, the bourgeoisie “sounded the death knell of bourgeois scientific economics”. (MARX, 1988, I, p. 22).

From the European revolution of 1848 to the Paris Commune of 1871, the proletariat, disciplined by the birth of large-scale industry, marked its autonomous entry into the political scene. In this context, the labor theory of value, the bourgeoisie's old weapon against the old regime, became a fundamental aspect for the critique of the bourgeois regime and the exploitative character of the capitalist mode of production. With this, the critique of political economy emerged as a revolutionary science linked to the interests of the working classes. Classical political economy, initiated by the physiocrats and dedicated to the investigation of the internal nexuses of bourgeois production conditions, became vulgar economics, limited solely to the systematization and proclamation of the “eternal truths” of the bourgeois class.

The critique of political economy – as Engelsian Marxist political economy represented the overcoming of the philosophical and political horizon of the bourgeois class. Resilience (repeal) by incorporating its conquests, highlighting limits and contradictions, in the process of deconstructing theoretical mistakes and bourgeois ideology. From the historical dialectical materialist method, Marx and Engels, constituted a new social theory, linked to the notion of social totality and revolutionary praxis of the proletariat, whose purpose would consist in establishing the analysis about the conditions of origin, development, contradictions, crises, legalities and trends, as well as possibilities of breaking with the capitalist mode of production.

Since the initial process of formulating such a theoretical-political project, Friedrich Engels played a decisive role in theory and practice in general and in the course of Marx's investigations in particular. In this sense, the Outline for a critique of political economy was instrumental in this endeavor.

The Sketch of 1843

In the prodrome of the constitution of the project of critique of political economy, the famous Outline appears as one of the most vigorous criticisms of classical economists, especially the schools of mercantilism and liberalism. On the one hand, by criticizing bourgeois political economy as a “science of enrichment”, Engels postulated the opposite of mercantilist politics, criticizing the fetish character of the assimilation of gold and money as wealth, demonstrating that, around mercantile relations, based on the centrality from the favorable trade balance, all kinds of rivalries and wars were established between nations, which “did everything to extract from the peoples […] the maximum in currency”. (ENGELS, 2010, p. 419).

On the other hand, the Outline dealt with a powerful critique of economic liberalism by representatives of classical political economy, especially Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Engels opposed the notion of commodity exchange as the "natural form" of modern sociability, his vehement criticism fell on the "scientific" and "vulgar" enthusiasts of the "free trade" ideology. The Engelsian reflection established an original interpretation of the structure and functioning of the capitalist economy, according to laws, trends and regularities, from the historical and social point of view (contrary to the idyllic notion of “natural law”).

Engels pointed out the philosophical limits of bourgeois science, establishing the original elements of a critique of capital as alienation, private property, and the form of unfolding exploited labor. In this sense, it was not a piece of chance or too much praise for the young Engels the fact that the contemporary Portuguese philosopher José Barata-Moura, had thus exposed: “the canonical formulations will appear, it is true, later, but the perspective for a foundation materialist is available now Umrisse”. (BARATA-MOURA, 2016, p 158).

O Outline represented the first criticism of the constitutive categories of classical political economy orchestrated in the perspective of defending the interests of the proletariat and the communist revolution. It is the booklet that inaugurated, before Marx, the critique of political economy as the priority perspective for the knowledge of the bourgeois order. Certainly, the text emerged with such radicality due to the political environment in which the young Engels was inserted. Since 1842, Engels was in contact with the social movement Chartist, whose main leaders were concentrated in the industrial working-class region linked to the textile industry in Manchester. (MARX, 2018).

The Engelsian formulation expressed, albeit in an embryonic way, the ontological nature of work and the political centrality of the proletariat. The work category was included in this article as the main element of production, that is, situated as a productive mediation, 'the source of wealth', carried out through free human activity transforming nature and humanity itself. When debating the category of work and the question of alienation, Engels presupposed the division between capital and work and its consequence, that is, the separation and class struggle between capitalists and workers.

No Outline, certainly due to the influence of Proudhon, Engels rejected the economists' theory of value, a debate that was only developed by Marx later on from the Misery of Philosophy (1847). In 1843, Engels centered his analysis on the critique of private property and competition seen as “bourgeois immoralities”. However, his analysis went further, demonstrating the limitations of political economy derived from the contradictions promoted by the historical movement of private property. Engels was the first theorist on the German philosophical left to shift the debate to the realm of political economy. Moreover, in this theoretical field he elucidated the connections between private property, the (critique of) political economy and the social conditions for the revolutionary process of transition to communism.

Destroying the assumptions of liberalism, he exclaimed that under the banner of “freedom of trade”, competition was imposed based on the separation between the working class and the means of production, as a determination of the sacrosanct right of private property (reason for competition). In the dialectics of the Engelsian formulation, marked by the influence of Hegel, competition between capitalists and capital ends up leading to monopoly, whose bases are based on private property and the alienation of work. Thus, the monopoly of private property turns man into a commodity, leading to the degradation of the workforce and of all humanity which, in turn, as an act of disalienation e self-emancipation, proclaimed by the critic of political economy, should postulate the suppression of private property.

From the analysis he undertook about the historical and contradictory movement of the capitalist mode of production and reproduction, Engels reached a high level of reflection by understanding a significant part of the dynamics of crises. Thus, based on the analysis of the law of supply and demand, indicating their relationship of disequilibrium, he exposed the theoretical assumptions of the theory of capitalist crises, considering one of its modalities, the periodic (cyclic) crises of overproduction. For Engels, the capitalist crisis, with its regularity, promotes constant “misery and immorality”. As a result of fluctuations in production, there is a tendency to reproduce crises in a logic that alternates scenarios of “prosperity and crisis, overproduction and stagnation”.

In Engels, the interpretation of the capitalist crisis is based on the contradiction between production and accumulation of social wealth, alluding to the ontological and historical opposition between bourgeoisie and proletariat in the dynamics of production and reproduction of social life. Thus, with the deepening of capital accumulation, the process of exploitation and impoverishment of workers expands. In his formulation about the crisis, there is an implicit relationship between the increase in labor productivity and the subsequent lowering of the living conditions of the working class. The development of material productive forces generates the overproduction of commodities. However, the goods are not absorbed by the market, they are not immediately consumed, due to the lowering of wages and workers' purchasing power. Therefore, the overproduction of goods in capitalist society necessarily leads to unemployment and impoverishment, thus generating an imbalance between supply and demand, and consequently, leading to the intensification of the cyclical crises of capitalism.

Faced with the understanding of the destructive rationality of the capitalist mode of production, a dimension postulated by Engels in the 1843 article, our author did not claim a system of reforms within the order of capital. However, above all, due to the theoretical analysis undertaken and the organic links established with the English proletariat, he advocated the emergence of the proletarian and communist revolution as the only effective antidote against the barbarism of capital.

Biographical note and relevance of the critique of Engels' political economy

There is a substantive bibliography whose analysis revolves around biographical aspects of Engels. The works by Mayer (2020), Hunt (2010), Coggiola (1995), MacLellan (1978), despite being based on different perspectives and developments, are among the most relevant. A small homage text prepared in 1895 in Russia affirmed the existence of a common revolutionary praxis between Marx and Engels (LENIN, 1960). Despite the existing differences, the inseparability between the founders of historical and dialectical materialism is about conditio sine qua non for research around the philosophy of praxis. So, “it is not possible to separate the life and work of both from 1844 onwards and it should be taken into account that Engels, not to be confused with Marx, had his own brilliance and always showed great intellectual autonomy” (NETTO , 2020, p. 32.).

Engels did not have the philosophical and academic training that Marx had. His path was another. Born in Barmen, he studied at the gymnasium eberfeld, whose strong point was the study of various languages. In the bosom of a religious family and manufacturing merchants, from a very early age, in Bremen (from 1838), he began to take care of his father's business. Interestingly, he dedicated himself to poetry in his youth, always looking for ways to contest religious dogmatism and the business environment. In 1841, Engels left Bremen for Berlin. In 1842 he was already in England, in the city of Manchester, to dedicate himself to the administration of the firm Ermen & Engels. Two years later, in the summer of 1844, more precisely, in September, in Paris, he had an important meeting with Marx. At this point, both were situated within the scope of the Left Young Hegelians, defending the perspective of dialectical negativity according to which there is a constant process of transformation of the world.

Engels even called himself the “second violin”. However, in the face of this metaphor, we can never forget the existing tuning between the “musical instruments”, which were in harmonic harmony. Just point out that the magnum opus of Marx, The capital, relied on Engels' systematizing effort. Book I, dedicated to capital production process, was prepared for publication by Marx. Two years after Marx's death, in 1885, Book II was published, aimed at capital circulation process. A year before Engels' death, in 1894, Book III appeared, which dealt with the global process of capitalist production. In these two books, the editing and structuring work carried out by Engels was crucial, helping to shape an unfinished work, but absolutely indispensable for understanding and intervening in our present time.

The XNUMXth anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels was marked by a global context of the heightened structural crisis of capital and the pandemic situation that claims the lives of hundreds of millions of working-class subjects around the world. Tragically, the crisis and the pandemic reaffirm the centrality of the project of critique of political economy, of which Marx and Engels were precursors.

In the historical period at the end of the third decade of the 2002st century, the process of capitalist accumulation, with its tendencies towards concentration and centralization of production and social wealth, on the one hand, and the expansion of poverty and pauperization on the other hand, demonstrates, on a world scale, the dynamics of reproduction of the structural crisis of capital. In the mészarian lexicon, in the wake of the praxis of Marx and Engels, neoliberal (un)reason established the structural crisis as a way of being of the social totality, as a universal, continuous, deepened, permanent crisis, of an economic, political, social and civilizing nature . (MÉSZÁROS, 2009; XNUMX).

The structural crisis that had one of its manifestations with the 2007/2008 crisis enters the process of resurgence due to the current context. Data recently published by the International Labor Organization – ILO show a fundamental aspect of the contemporary capitalist crisis, producing more than 200 million unemployed people in the world. As explained by Engels in the Outline Capitalist accumulation and crisis produce mass unemployment, with each crisis tending to be more universal and worse than the preceding one, impoverishing society more and more.

In this sense, the project of critique of political economy inaugurated by Engels in 1843, an ontologically current perspective and active in the XNUMXst century, presents us with the indispensable theoretical instruments for the critique of the totality of the sociometabolic order of capital.

Final considerations

In the course of our article, when we raise some key points for the debate and reaffirmation of the importance of the Engelsian formulation present in Outline of a critique of political economy, among other aspects, we also seek to demonstrate the indispensability of the theoretical struggle as part of the class struggle. As Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory, there is no revolutionary movement”. In this sense adding that, “it would not be too insistent on this idea in an era, where the enthusiasm for the most limited forms of practical action appears accompanied by the fashionable propaganda of opportunism”. (LENIN, 1978, p. 18).

Based on the work of Engels, The Peasant Wars in Germany, the Bolshevik theorist highlighted the indispensability of theoretical struggle. The contempt for the theoretical struggle – past and present – ​​makes it imperative to care for this crucial dimension of the class struggle. Engels himself declared that: “without philosophy […], especially without the philosophy of Hegel, scientific socialism would never have been created. On the other hand, if the workers lacked theoretical sense, this scientific socialism would never have been, as it is today, flesh of their flesh and blood of their blood. (ENGELS, 2010, p. 54).

In this sense, in the face of the civilizational crisis surpassed by humanity, it becomes fundamental to develop the theoretical struggle in the light of the critique of political economy project so that, in addition to reflecting on the current contradictions of the capitalist order, we can act on a concrete practical level with a view to overcoming them.

Friedrich Engels helps us to reinforce the proletarian and communist strategy. Thus, in these concluding lines (or opening for new debates), it is only necessary to highlight: “communism is not for us a state of affairs [Condition] that must be established, a Ideal towards which reality should head. We call communism the real movement that overcomes the present state of affairs”. (MARX; ENGELS, 2007, p. 38).

* Mario Soares Neto He is a lawyer and a teacher. Master in Law from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).

Originally published in the Portuguese magazine Vertex, see 198.


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[I] See: MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. Werke. Dietz Verlag, Berlin. Band 1. Berlin/DDR. 1976, pp. 499-524. See: ENGELS; Friedrich. Outlines of a critique of political economy. IN: MARX, Karl; ENGELS; Friedrich. Collected Works. Volume 3. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, pp. 418-443. See also ENGELS; Friedrich. Outline of a Critique of Political Economy. Translation by Maria Filomena Viegas and revision by José Paulo Netto. In: Revista Temas de Ciências Humanas, São Paulo, Ed. Human Sciences, 5: 1-29, 1979.

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