Engels on the British Ideology:
Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

The century-long controversy fueled by the Engels-betrayed-Marx cottage industry overlooks many of Engels' most philosophically perspicacious remarks, which stretch back to his earliest writings. Note how Engels' philosophical critique is embedded in a historical materialist perspective in his essays on the condition of England (see below as well as Engels' critique of Carlyle), written just as he was initiating his epochal work The Condition of the Working-Class in England. There are some anachronistic peculiarities, to be sure—the business about national character and the Hegelian mode of reasoning: English = French + German—but this material is quite remarkable. Some of these excerpts mesh with other excerpts collected on another web page, Marx & Engels on Skepticism & Praxis.

To see just how well Engels understood the British ideology, see T. H. Huxley's Lectures and Essays, e.g. the essays "On the Physical Basis of Life" and "Naturalism and Supernaturalism." For further background on the relevant philosophical terminology see my blog entry and attached comments, Naturalism & Materialism.

See also the first joint work of Marx and Engels The Holy Family (written 1844, published 1845), especially the section Critical Battle Against French Materialism, written by Marx, referenced by Engels in his 1892 English Edition Introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. The aforementioned early writings also supply interesting materials for ascertaining the influence of Marx and Engels upon one another.

Normally, these texts would be available via the Marxists Internet Archive. Due to a recent sabotage of the MIA server, the master site no longer functions normally, and due to other problems, it may disappear altogether for a while. For the moment, the use of mirror sites is recommended, and eventually, other online sources. Some of the URLs given below are from a mirror site. Here are some brief quotes from these texts. (— RD, 18 Feb 2007 )

The Marxists Internet Archive functions normally, but all links specifically published in the set Marx Engels Collected Works have been redirected. All the links now found on this page are functional. (— RD, 22 Jan 2019)

Engels on the philosophical dichotomy of the 18th century

SOURCE: Engels, Frederick. The Condition of England. I: The Eighteenth Century, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, 1970), pp. 469-488.

SOURCE: Engels, Frederick. "The Condition of England," Vorwärts!, No. 70, August 31, 1844.

The culmination of science in the eighteenth century was materialism, the first system of natural philosophy and the consequence of this development of the natural sciences. The struggle against the abstract subjectivity of Christianity forced the philosophy of the eighteenth century to the other extreme; it opposed subjectivity with objectivity, the mind with nature, spiritualism with materialism, the abstract individual with the abstract universal or substance. The eighteenth century represents the revival of the spirit of antiquity as against that of Christianity. Materialism and the republic; the philosophy and politics of the ancient world, arose anew, and the French, the exponents of the ethos of antiquity within Christianity, assumed the historical initiative for a time.

The eighteenth century thus did not resolve the great antithesis which has been the concern of history from the beginning and whose development constitutes history, the antithesis of substance and subject, nature and mind, necessity and freedom; but it set the two sides against each other, fully developed and in all their sharpness, and thereby made it necessary to overcome the antithesis. The consequence ‘Of this clear final evolution of the antithesis was general revolution which spread over various nations and whose imminent completion will at the same time resolve the antithesis of history up to the present. The Germans, the nation of Christian spiritualism, experienced a philosophical revolution; the French, the nation of classical materialism and hence of politics, had to go through a political revolution; the English, a nation that is a mixture of German and French elements, who therefore embody both sides of the antithesis and are for that reason more universal than either of the two factors taken separately, were for that reason drawn into a more universal, a social revolution.

* * *

The English nation is characterised by this unresolved contradiction and the mingling of the sharpest contrasts. The English are the most religious nation on earth and at the same time the most irreligious; they worry more about the next world than any other nation, and at the same time they live as though this world were all that mattered to them; their expectation of heaven does not hinder them in the slightest from believing equally firmly in the “hell of making no money” and in the everlasting inner restlessness of the English, which is caught up in the sense of being unable to resolve the contradiction and which drives them out of themselves and into activity. The sense of contradiction is the source of energy, but merely external energy, and this sense of contradiction was the source of colonisation, seafaring, industry and the immense practical activity of the English in general. The inability to resolve the contradiction runs like a thread through the whole of English philosophy and forces it into empiricism and scepticism. Because Bacon could not resolve the contradiction between idealism and realism with his intellect, the intellect as such had to be incapable of solving it, idealism was simply discarded and empiricism regarded as the only remedy. From the same source derives the critical analysis of cognition and the whole psychological tendency within whose bounds English philosophy has moved from the outset, and in the end, after many unsuccessful attempts at resolving the contradiction, philosophy declares it to be insoluble and the intellect to be inadequate, and seeks a way out either in religious faith or in empiricism. Humean scepticism is still the form all irreligious philosophising takes in England today. We cannot know, this viewpoint argues, whether a God exists; if one exists, he is incapable of any communication with us, and we have therefore so to arrange our practical affairs as if he did not exist. We cannot know whether the mind is distinct from the body and immortal; we therefore live as if this life were the only one we have and do not bother about things that go beyond our understanding. In short, this scepticism is in practice exactly the same as French materialism, but in metaphysical theory it never advances beyond the inability of arriving at any definitive conclusion.

* * *

The English national character is thus substantially different both from the German and from the French character; the despair of overcoming the contradiction and the consequent total surrender to empiricism are its peculiar characteristics. The pure Germanic element converted its abstract inwardness into abstract outwardness, but this outwardness never lost the mark of its origin and always remained subordinate to inwardness and spiritualism. The French too are to be found on the side of materialism and empiricism; but because this empiricism is the primary national tendency and not a secondary consequence of a national consciousness divided within itself, it asserts itself nationally, generally and finds expression in political activity. The Germans asserted the absolute justification of spiritualism and hence sought to set forth the universal interests of mankind in religious and later in philosophic terms. The French opposed this spiritualism with materialism as something absolutely justified and consequently considered that the state was the eternal manifestation of these interests. The English however have no universal interests, they cannot mention them without touching that sore spot, the contradiction, they despair of them and have only individual interests. This absolute subjectivity, the fragmentation of the universal into the many individual parts, is admittedly of Germanic origin, but, as we have said, it is cut off from its roots and therefore only takes effect empirically, which is precisely what distinguishes English social empiricism from French political empiricism. France’s actions were always national, conscious of their entireness and universality from the start; England’s actions were the work of independent coexisting individuals — the movement of disconnected atoms — who rarely acted together as one whole, and even then only from individual motives, and whose lack of unity is at this very time exposed to the light of day in the universal misery and complete fragmentation of society.

In other words, only England has a social history. Only in England have individuals as such, without consciously standing for universal principles, furthered national development and brought it near to its conclusion. Only here have the masses acted as masses, for the sake of their interests as individuals; only here have principles been turned into interests before they were able to influence history. The French and the Germans are gradually attaining a social history too, but they have not got one yet. On the Continent too there have been poverty, misery and social oppression, this however has had no effect on national development; but the misery and poverty of the working class in present-day England has national and even world-historical importance. On the Continent the social aspect is still completely hidden by the political aspect and has not yet become detached from it, whilst in England the social aspect has gradually prevailed over the political one and has made it subservient. The whole of English politics is fundamentally social in nature, and social questions are expressed in a political way only because England has not yet advanced beyond the state, and because politics is a necessary expedient there.

As long as church and state are the only forms in which the universal characteristics of human nature are realised, there can be no question of social history. Antiquity and the Middle Ages were also therefore without social development; only the Reformation, the first, as yet biased and blundering attempt at a reaction against the Middle Ages, brought about a major social change, the transformation of serfs into “free” workers. But even this change remained without much enduring effect on the Continent, indeed it really took root there only after the revolution of the eighteenth century; whereas in England the category of serfs was transformed during the Reformation into villeins, bordars and cottars and thus into a class of workers enjoying personal freedom [202] and as early as the eighteenth century the consequences of this revolution became evident there. Why this happened only in England is explained above.

SOURCE: Engels, Frederick. "The Condition of England," Vorwärts!, No. 71, September 4, 1844.

Antiquity, which as yet knew nothing of the rights of the individual, whose whole outlook was essentially abstract, universal and material, could therefore not exist without slavery. The Christian-Germanic view of the world, by contrast with antiquity, set up abstract subjectivity, and hence arbitrariness, inwardness and spiritualism, as the basic principle. However this subjectivity, precisely because it was abstract and one-sided, was bound to turn at once into its opposite and to engender, not the freedom of the individual, but the enslavement of the individual. Abstract inwardness became abstract outwardness, the rejection and alienation of man, and the first consequence of the new principle was the restoration of slavery in another form, that of serfdom, which was less offensive but for that reason hypocritical and more inhuman. The dissolution of the feudal system, the political Reformation, in other words, the apparent acknowledgment of reason, and hence really the culmination of unreason, appeared to abolish this serfdom, but in reality only made it more inhuman and more universal. It was the first to declare that mankind should no longer be held together by force, that is, by political means, but by self-interest, that is, by social means, and through this new principle it laid the foundation for social advance. But although it thus negated the state, on the other hand it actually revived the state by restoring to it the content which had previously been usurped by the church, and thus gave the state, which in the Middle Ages had been an empty form of little consequence, the strength for further development. The Christian state, the culmination of the political aspect of the Christian world order, arose from the ruins of feudalism; another aspect of the Christian world order attained its culmination by elevating interestedness to a general principle. For interest is essentially subjective and egoistical, it is the interest of the individual, and as such the highest point of the Germanic and Christian principle of subjectivity and particularisation. The consequence of elevating interest to the nexus of man to man — that is as long as interest remains directly subjective and purely egoistical — is bound to be universal fragmentation, the concentration of each individual upon himself, isolation, the transformation of mankind into a collection of mutually repelling atoms; and this particularisation is again the ultimate consequence of the Christian principle of subjectivity, the culmination of the Christian world order.

* * *

I mentioned above that the sciences had assumed their scientific form in the eighteenth century and were consequently connected on the one hand with philosophy and on the other with practice. The result of taking philosophy as the point of departure was materialism (for which Newton was just as much a prerequisite as Locke), the Enlightenment and the French political revolution. The result of taking practice as the point of departure was the English social revolution.

SOURCE: Engels, Frederick. "The Condition of England," Vorwärts!, No. 73, September 11, 1844.

Godwin still defines the principle of utility quite generally as the duty of the citizen to live only for the general good without regard to his individual interest; Bentham, on the contrary, takes the essentially social nature of this principle further and in accordance with the national trend of that time makes the individual interest the basis of the general interest: he recognises that the two are identical in the proposition, which his pupil Mill in particular developed, that charity is nothing but enlightened egoism, and he substitutes the greatest happiness of the greatest number for the “general good”. Bentham here makes the same error in his empiricism as Hegel made in his theory; he does not seriously try to overcome the contradictions, he turns the subject into the predicate, subordinates the whole to the part and in so doing stands everything on its head. First he says that the general and individual interests are inseparable and then he stays unilaterally at the crudest individual interest. His proposition is only the empirical expression of another one, namely, that man is mankind, but because it is expressed empirically it grants the rights of the species not to the free, self-conscious, creative man, but to the crude and blind man who remains within the confines of the contradictions. Bentham makes free competition the essence of morality, regulates human relations according to the laws of property, of things, according to the laws of nature, and thus represents the culmination of the old, naturally evolved Christian world order, the highest point of alienation, and not the beginning of a new order to be created by self-conscious man in full freedom. He does not advance beyond the state, but strips it of all meaning, substitutes social principles for political ones, turns the political organisation into the form of the social content and thus carries the contradiction to its extreme limit.

The social roots of British agnosticism

SOURCE: Engels, Frederick. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific [originally written & published 1880], translated from French by Edward Aveling (1892), in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, 1970), pp. 95-151.

1892 English Edition Introduction:


I am perfectly aware that the contents of this work will meet with objection from a considerable portion of the British public. But, if we Continentals had taken the slightest notice of the prejudices of British "respectability", we should be even worse off than we are. This book defends what we call "historical materialism", and the word materialism grates upon the ears of the immense majority of British readers. "Agnosticism" might be tolerated, but materialism is utterly inadmissible.

And, yet, the original home of all modern materialism, from the 17th century onwards, is England.


Thus Karl Marx wrote about the British origin of modern materialism. If Englishmen nowadays do not exactly relish the compliment he paid their ancestors, more's the pity. It is none the less undeniable that Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke are the fathers of that brilliant school of French materialism which made the 18th century, in spite of all battles on land and sea won over Frenchmen by Germans and Englishmen, a pre-eminently French century, even before that crowning French Revolution, the results of which we outsiders, in England as well as Germany, are still trying to acclimatize.

There is no denying it. About the middle of this century, what struck every cultivated foreigner who set up his residence in England, was what he was then bound to consider the religious bigotry and stupidity of the English respectable middle-class. We, at that time, were all materialists, or, at least, very advanced free-thinkers, and to us it appeared inconceivable that almost all educated people in England should believe in all sorts of impossible miracles, and that even geologists like Buckland and Mantell should contort the facts of their science so as not to clash too much with the myths of the book of Genesis; while, in order to find people who dared to use their own intellectual faculties with regard to religious matters, you had to go amongst the uneducated, the "great unwashed", as they were then called, the working people, especially the Owenite Socialists.


What, indeed, is agnosticism but, to use an expressive Lancashire term, "shamefaced" materialism? The agnostic's conception of Nature is materialistic throughout. The entire natural world is governed by law, and absolutely excludes the intervention of action from without. But, he adds, we have no means either of ascertaining or of disproving the existence of some Supreme Being beyond the known universe. Now, this might hold good at the time when Laplace, to Napoleon's question, why, in the great astronomer's Treatise on Celestial Mechanics, the Creator was not even mentioned, proudly replied "I had no need of this hypothesis." But, nowadays, in our evolutionary conception of the universe, there is absolutely no room for either a Creator or a Ruler; and to talk of a Supreme Being shut out from the whole existing world, implies a contradiction in terms, and, as it seems to me, a gratuitous insult to the feelings of religious people.


As soon, however, as our agnostic has made these formal mental reservations, he talks and acts as the rank materialist he at bottom is. He may say that, as far as we know, matter and motion, or as it is now called, energy, can neither be created nor destroyed, but that we have no proof of their not having been created at some time or other. But if you try to use this admission against him in any particular case, he will quickly put you out of court. If he admits the possibility of spiritualism in abstracto, he will have none of it in concreto. As far as we know and can know, he will tell you there is no creator and no Ruler of the universe; as far as we are concerned, matter and energy can neither be created nor annihilated; for us, mind is a mode of energy, a function of the brain; all we know is that the material world is governed by immutable laws, and so forth. Thus, as far as he is a scientific man, as far as he knows anything, he is a materialist; outside his science, in spheres about which he knows nothing, he translates his ignorance into Greek and calls it agnosticism.

1892 English Edition Introduction:


There was another factor that contributed to strengthen the religious leanings of the bourgeoisie. That was the rise of materialism in England. This new doctrine not only shocked the pious feelings of the middle-class; it announced itself as a philosophy only fit for scholars and cultivated men of the world, in contrast to religion, which was good enough for the uneducated masses, including the bourgeoisie. With Hobbes, it stepped on the stage as a defender of royal prerogative and omnipotence; it called upon absolute monarchy to keep down that puer robustus sed malitiosus ["Robust but malicious boy"] – to wit, the people. Similarly, with the successors of Hobbes, with Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, etc., the new deistic form of materialism remained an aristocratic, esoteric doctrine, and, therefore, hateful to the middle-class both for its religious heresy and for its anti-bourgeois political connections. Accordingly, in opposition to the materialism and deism of the aristocracy, those Protestant sects which had furnished the flag and the fighting contingent against the Stuarts continued to furnish the main strength of the progressive middle-class, and form even today the backbone of "the Great Liberal Party".

In the meantime, materialism passed from England to France, where it met and coalesced with another materialistic school of philosophers, a branch of Cartesianism. In France, too, it remained at first an exclusively aristocratic doctrine. But, soon, its revolutionary character asserted itself. The French materialists did not limit their criticism to matters of religious belief; they extended it to whatever scientific tradition or political institution they met with; and to prove the claim of their doctrine to universal application, they took the shortest cut, and boldly applied it to all subjects of knowledge in the giant work after which they were named – the Encyclopaedia. Thus, in one or the other of its two forms – avowed materialism or deism – it became the creed of the whole cultures youth of France; so much so that, when the Great Revolution broke out, the doctrine hatched by English Royalists gave a theoretical flag to French Republicans and Terrorists, and furnished the text for the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Great French Revolution was the third uprising of the bourgeoisie, but the first that had entirely cast off the religious cloak, and was fought out on undisguised political lines; it was the first, too, that was really fought out up to the destruction of one of the combatants, the aristocracy, and the complete triumph of the other, the bourgeoisie. In England, the continuity of pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary institutions, and the compromise between landlords and capitalists, found its expression in the continuity of judicial precedents and in the religious preservation of the feudal forms of the law.


Thus, if materialism became the creed of the French Revolution, the God-fearing English bourgeois held all the faster to his religion. Had not the reign of terror in Paris proved what was the upshot, if the religious instincts of the masses were lost? The more materialism spread from France to neighboring countries, and was reinforced by similar doctrinal currents, notably by German philosophy, the more, in fact, materialism and free thought generally became, on the Continent, the necessary qualifications of a cultivated man, the more stubbornly the English middle-class stuck to its manifold religious creeds. These creeds might differ from one another, but they were, all of them, distinctly religious, Christian creeds.


For a time, at least, the bugbear of working-class pretensions was put down, but at what cost! If the British bourgeois had been convinced before of the necessity of maintaining the common people in a religious mood, how much more must he feel that necessity after all these experiences? Regardless of the sneers of his Continental compeers, he continued to spend thousands and tens of thousands, year after year, upon the evangelization of the lower orders; not content with his own native religious machinery, he appealed to Brother Jonathan 1), the greatest organizer in existence of religion as a trade, and imported from America revivalism, Moody and Sankey, and the like; and, finally, he accepted the dangerous aid of the Salvation Army, which revives the propaganda of early Christianity, appeals to the poor as the elect, fights capitalism in a religious way, and thus fosters an element of early Christian class antagonism, which one day may become troublesome to the well-to-do people who now find the ready money for it.


And now came the triumph of British respectability over the free thought and religious laxity of the Continental bourgeois. The workmen of France and Germany had become rebellious. They were thoroughly infected with Socialism, and, for very good reasons, were not at all particular as to the legality of the means by which to secure their own ascendancy. The puer robustus, here, turned from day-to-day more malitiosus. Nothing remained to the French and German bourgeoisie as a last resource but to silently drop their free thought, as a youngster, when sea-sickness creeps upon him, quietly drops the burning cigar he brought swaggeringly on board; one-by-one, the scoffers turned pious in outward behavior, spoke with respect of the Church, its dogmas and rites, and even conformed with the latter as far as could not be helped. French bourgeois dined maigre on Fridays, and German ones say out long Protestant sermons in their pews on Sundays. They had come to grief with materialism. "Die Religion muss dem Volk erhalten werden" – religion must be kept alive for the people – that was the only and the last means to save society from utter ruin. Unfortunately for themselves, they did not find this out until they had done their level best to break up religion for ever. And now it was the turn of the British bourgeoisie to sneer and to say: "Why, you fools, I could have told you that 200 years ago!"

However, I am afraid neither the religious stolidity of the British, nor the post festum conversion of the Continental bourgeois will stem the rising Proletarian tide. Tradition is a great retarding force, is the vis inertiae of history, but, being merely passive, is sure to be broken down; and thus religion will be no lasting safeguard to capitalist society. If our juridical, philosophical, and religious ideas are the more or less remote offshoots of the economical relations prevailing in a given society, such ideas cannot, in the long run, withstand the effects of a complete change in these relations. And, unless we believe in supernatural revelation, we must admit that no religious tenets will ever suffice to prop up a tottering society.

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Marx & Engels on Skepticism & Praxis

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Friedrich Engels on Empiricism, Spiritualism, Science,
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Engels-Marx Letters, 30 & 31 May 1873
(Engels’ first brainstorm on science & dialectics)

On Bentham and Coleridge (Excerpts)
by John Stuart Mill

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— Commentary by Ralph Dumain

Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern:
Studies in Carlyle’s Prophetic Literature and Its Relation to Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Others

by Albert J. LaValley

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief /
Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links


Naturalism & Materialism
(in R. Dumain's “Reason & Society” Blog)

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