Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels in later life.

In 1865 Marx had a passing fit of pedological materialism. The French naturalist Pierre Trémaux published a treatise explaining human variety in terms of soil characteristics. Marx was actually impressed by this and said ‘It [Trémaux’s theory] represents a very significant advance over Darwin [!!]…For certain questions such as nationality, etc., only here has a basis in nature been found’. Luckily for all of us, as Nairn points out, Engels quickly ‘managed to cure Marx of the aberration’.

As historical materialists we should always apply a sense of the ‘historical’ and the ‘material’ to our founding fathers too. Outliving Marx by a good 12 years, Engels lived to see an altogether more advanced form of capitalism than Marx ever witnessed. This is clear from several passages of Capital volume 3 which were written by Engels himself, not least the important Supplement he added to the book in May 1895, two months before he died. Scales of production had expanded massively in recent years and given rise to ‘new forms of industrial organization’, he says, referring to the huge industrial combinations called “trusts” which were capable of setting up ‘giant enterprises’ straddling whole branches of industry under ‘unified management’ (that is, under a single firm). As Yergin points out in his brilliant book on the oil industry, ‘the movement toward combination really gathered speed in the 1890s’ (Yergin, The Prize, p. 100), and of course Engels might have cited Standard Oil Trust as the leading example of these developments (but chose a British example, United Alkali Company, instead).

As Engels draws closer to the end of his life, in the 1890s, oil, steel and chemicals become the typical face of capitalism (not textiles). But the same sense of a new capitalist modernity comes through in at least two admiring references to the way submarine telegraph cables, steamers and the completion of the Suez Canal had dramatically compressed the turnover of world trade (of commercial capital).

Again, Marx didn’t live to witness the expansion of French capitalism in Indochina (the massive concentration of French economic interests in rice, rubber, banking and minerals), so his image of colonialism retains the archaic stamp of Britain’s involvement in India. Take this example: from 1876 to 1914 the French financial conglomerate Banque de l’Indochine extracted cumulative net profits of 107.3 million gold francs on an invested capital of 12 million. No British firm in India could ever have matched that level of profitability, let alone the degree of concentration of capital involved here.

In any case, as the problem of Britain’s industrial decline became more obvious by the late 19th century, England could scarcely count as ‘the model country of economic development’ (Marx in vol. 3, p. 737). So here’s a thought experiment: had Marx written Capital c.1900, how different would the text as a whole have been?

by Jairus Banaji