Engels and proletarian literature

Image: Hamilton Grimaldi


Valuing the cultural heritage of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, Engels seeks to rid all influence of bourgeois ideological decadence on proletarian literature

In the difficult year 2020, Engels completed 200 years of birth. Many were the tributes paid to the German thinker both in Brazil and in the rest of the world. In our country, Engels was not presented, as he proclaimed himself, as a second fiddle. On the contrary, the Engelsian work was presented as it is: the result of the arduous intellectual adventure of a man who constituted an independent and unmistakable work.

It is well known that Engels made important contributions to a number of fields of knowledge. As a Marxist, he focused on dialectics, politics, law, the State, the family, the economy, nature and, it is always worth remembering, he also focused on the literary field.

Precisely because it is an area that is quite neglected, if not forgotten, by communist thinkers and activists, in this short text I would like to pay tribute to Engels by presenting his contributions to thinking about the formation of a realistic proletarian literature. Without the desire to exhaust the subject, I hope that Engels' lessons on this subject can be properly appreciated by literary theorists and critics, as well as by the writers themselves who consider the struggle for socialism to be urgent and necessary today.


Although since his pre-Marxist youth, Engels had already been interested in literature, as evidenced by his activity as a theorist and literary critic in the early 1840s, when he was still a radical democrat full of illusions about the German bourgeoisie and an admirer of Ludwig Börne – important writer of the literary movement Young Germany – it was above all from 1848, with the emergence of the proletariat as a revolutionary class, that Engels turned his attention to the phenomenon of proletarian literature.

Since 1848, already under the influence of classical German philosophy, classical political economy, the revolutionary labor movement, and the deep friendship he had begun with Marx in 1844, Engels began to consider all authentic literature as realistic. The ontological-materialist need to assert reality as an objective reality and all the products of consciousness as a reflection of that same reality, allowed Engels to perceive the revolutionary potential of literature as a crucial vehicle for the ideological battle against the process of bourgeoisification of the proletariat's consciousness. Suffice it to recall that after defeating the revolutionary insurrection of the proletariat in June 1848 based on the use of weapons, the bourgeoisie abandoned once and for all any ideology that promoted the enlightenment of the working masses in relation to the social roots of the destruction of the human personality and, in return, it embraces everything that hides the being in itself of reality by making the falsification operated in everyday life determined by the fetishist logic of merchandise an instrument of propaganda and a gag against the revolutionary impulses of the proletariat. Therefore, Engels's critique of post-1848 bourgeois philosophy in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, nor is his critique of bourgeois literature that emerges after the revolutionary days of 1848.

Noting this conservative turn by the bourgeoisie, which clearly illustrates its historical bankruptcy, Engels seeks to rid the nascent proletarian literature of all influence arising from bourgeois ideological decadence. What mobilizes Engels in this endeavor is the impetus of a communist who demands from the proletarian literature of his time the mirroring of the most diverse themes that are placed in everyday life with the realism that today is only possible thanks to the existence of the proletariat as a revolutionary class - or rather , as a class that can only put an end to all inhumanity promoted throughout the civilizing development of class society to the extent that social contradictions impel this class to overcome what exists through the obligatory conscious contact with objective reality. It follows from this why Engels praises Fourier when he addresses the matrimonial question or Weerth when he dwells on a topic so surrounded by moralism as is the case of sexual life. For Engels, proletarian literature could not surrender to any prejudice – as this is an odious feeling inherent in all forms of sociability based on the division of human beings into classes. Rather, proletarian literature would have to assume objective reality as the source of its being and portray it realistically, reflecting the sad capitalist sociability in its complex contradictory movement.


Throughout his struggle for a realistic literature at a time when the existence of the proletariat consolidates the objective possibility for an authentic future for the human race, Engels considers crucial the valorization of the bourgeois cultural heritage. Just as there is no Chinese wall separating the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution, it is also not possible to affirm the existence of a rigid cleavage between the literature produced over the years in which the bourgeoisie nourished its historically necessary illusions and the proletarian literature. In fact, the impetus for transforming society, the courageous struggle to overcome the old regime, the humanist desire to create a new human being far superior to the narrow and provincial social being of the Middle Ages, all of this was fundamental for bourgeois literature, as a product of the consciousness of a class in revolutionary struggle between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, to be capable of reflecting all the great contradictions of an era without thereby dodging the figuration of the enormous social problems caused by capitalist accumulation in development.

Valuing the cultural heritage of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, Engels seeks to rid all influence of bourgeois ideological decadence on proletarian literature. Engels, like Marx, knew very well that the revolutionary days of 1848 had brought about an upheaval in all spheres of bourgeois activity, including literature. From then on, laying bare reality not only ceased to be an interest of the dominant classes, but also an ontological impossibility for them. After all, there is no longer any real way out to overcome the problems listed by bourgeois society without abolishing all the ontological foundations of class society: strange work, money, private property, the State and the monogamous family.

For this reason, Engels criticizes, in correspondence dated 1859, the play Franz von Sickingen by Ferdinand Lassalle

Sickeningby Ferdinand Lasalle. Although this dramatic play seeks to represent its characters as representatives of really existing social trends, Lassalle bends to the scoffing realism of the decadence period by not showing these same trends through the action of the characters. The impossibility of creating the link between the character's individual action and the social trends of the time is the ideological result of the impossibility of the bourgeoisie carrying out the revolution that it itself had started in the past. The bourgeoisie, now the enemy of all revolutionary activity, finds its image and likeness in the writer’s inability to create “flesh and blood” characters, that is, characters that only exist for the reader insofar as they respond to the problems posed by the world in which they live. it is inserted objectifying itself, that is, acting on the world created by the writer. This ontological characteristic of every social being – as evidenced by work as a vital metabolic activity and, therefore, insurmountable between man and nature – is present in all literature that does not escape the task of representing what it itself arises from: objective reality. . In short, Engels demands from proletarian literature the same unprejudiced realism as the heralds of revolutionary bourgeois literature: the creation of typical characters, that is, the configuration of individuals who, through action, delineate their unmistakable personality and, at the same time, express, also through action, the crucial problems of an era.

Hence, for example, the praise of Balzac's work. In correspondence with the writer Margaret Harkness in 1888, Engels peremptorily states that proletarian literature would only achieve the triumph of realism if it managed to portray effectively human characters. Hence the need for the writer to overcome any tendency to make his characters idealized beings – perfect or too imperfect. For this reason, Engels considers it of indelible importance that the writer revisit Balzac's work not to copy her style, but rather to capture the true value of the writer of the Human Comedy: the ability to reflect objective reality in its tortuous, complex movement, full of contradictions.

It is interesting to note that in 1885, three years before the correspondence between Engels and Harkness, our honoree, when poring over the novel The old and the new by Minna Kautsky, demonstrates how much the decadent idealism of the naturalist type permeated the literature that claimed to be proletarian-revolutionary. According to Engels, the use of trend romance used by Minna Kautsky did nothing to contribute to the de-alienating mission of art. In fact, Engels harshly criticizes this issue in the writer's work. A trend, as it appears in The old and the new, acquires a feature characteristic of bourgeois ideological decadence because it only expresses the subjective anxieties of the writer and these are placed by her in a purely artificial way in the work. The result couldn't be worse: instead of a literature that was created with the intention of contributing to human emancipation, we had the exact opposite, a literature that reproduced, in its content and form, the deepest everyday reification; a literature that made the characters real things that could be manipulated according to the writer's taste; a literature that contributed to the creation of a type of reader subjectively adapted to a dehumanized and dehumanizing way of social life.

Engels, in contradistinction to Mrs. Kautsky, defends a trend of a realist type – what Lukács calls partisanship. Recalling important names such as Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Dante, Cervantes and Schiller, Engels claims not to be contrary to the trend as such. For our honoree, the difference between trend of the realist writers of the past and the writers of the decadence of the present lay in the fact that among the former the defense of human substance in the face of a degraded world appears from the action of the characters while among the latter it arises through factors external to the work. , or rather, through the subjective will of the writer who shapes the form and content according to his inner desire, completely disrespecting the liveliness of his characters and the dynamics of the plot.

In short, the realists of the past – unlike the current literary philistines of decadence – were able to capture the great contradictions of the time because historical time pushed them towards active participation within social life. At no time did the realist writer of the period of the revolutionary bourgeoisie isolate himself from the world. Before, he experienced it in all its nuance and complexity. Active participation in relation to the destinies posed by the dynamics of the social life of capitalism in formation resulted in enriched experiences that were, in turn, the key factor for writers like Balzac – a subjectively conservative man and defender of the aristocracy – to overcome their prejudices of class and made realism triumph in literature.

In this way, Engels states that cultural heritage constitutes a legacy of fundamental importance for proletarian literature because it teaches that the greatness of every literary work that today claims to be revolutionary lies in never dodging the task of laying bare the driving forces of contradictory development. of capitalism and never fail to carry forward the implications of this — on the one hand, the humanist revolt against everything that pushes human beings to become veritable wild beasts and, on the other hand, the humanist defense of the formation of a fully universal human being .

In this sense, to become realistic, proletarian literature must not be reduced to the condition of an instrument of political propaganda. It is not up to the writer committed to the social revolution to make the literary work the expression of his personal desires or of the political organization with which he flirts or militates. If proletarian literature wants to become an arsenal in the fight against the bourgeoisization of workers' consciousness, it only has to embrace objective reality with all its strength and reflect it in all its power. It will be from there that the work will represent, in its content and in its form, the bestiality of the bourgeois world in its processuality.

When proletarian literature succeeds in figuring out the deformation of personality driven by class society in its concrete becoming, when this literature manages to make readers feel disgust and hatred towards everything that makes the free development of an effectively human life impossible, when in proletarian literature there is the triumph of realism, we will have opened one more trench in the struggle for what we want. to which Engels dedicated his life and his work: the triumph of communism.

* Fabio Dias is professor of sociology at the Federal Institute of Santa Catarina.




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