The Force Theory of Herr Eugene Dühring
Chapters two, three and four of Part Two of Anti-Dühring "Political Economy" deal with Dühring's theory that political systems and power are PRIMARY and economic relations are SECONDARY-- both historically and in the present day. Engels says Dühring gives no evidence or arguments in favor of this theory (which he claims is ORIGINAL) but simply asserts it as a given. Engels says this is old hash and has been the way history has been seen since the beginning. The true history of mankind has actually taken place behind the scenes and is the real basis for the pompous doings of the kings and presidents, popes and generals that strut the stage and are memorialized in the history books.
Dühring's idea that all the previous history of mankind is based on man's enslavement of man-- i.e., on force-- and that this is the only way we can explain it is exemplified by his example of Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Crusoe enslaves Friday. But why does he do this? Engels says "only in order that Friday should work for Crusoe's benefit." That is for an ECONOMIC MOTIVE. Dühring has reversed the true relation between political order and economic order and does not see "that force is only the means and that the aim is economic advantage."
Slavery, by the way, the condition from which Dühring starts out his "political force is the basis of history" nonsense is itself the result of prior historical and economic developments.
Slavery requires two preconditions: tools and material for the slave to work upon and a food supply to provide a basic subsistence for the slave. This means that a prior historical period in which distribution of social wealth has developed must have preceded the introduction of slavery.
Engels gives as examples primitive societies with common land ownership where there was no slavery or it "played only a very subordinate role." This is also true of ancient Rome before it became an imperial power. Even in the US, Engels says, the cotton industry of England was more important than force in maintaining slavery in the South so that "in those districts where no cotton was grown or which, unlike the border states, did not breed slaves for the cotton growing states, it died out of itself without any force being used, simply because it did not pay."
But wait a minute. Doesn't this sound right about the world we live in? Dühring says capitalist property today is the result of the use of force in the past and in fact all past property accumulations are also based on force (Rome, Egypt, etc.,) and force is, in Dühring's words, "that form of domination AT THE ROOT OF WHICH LIES not merely the exclusion of fellow-men from the use of the natural means of subsistence, but also... the subjection of man to make him do servile work." It sounds right. Big business and the oil giants use force to take over natural resources (Niger Delta, Iraq, the Amazon), they force masses of third world workers into sweat shops at low wages, etc. Why isn't Dühring right on?
Well, Engels says he is not: "Private property by no means makes it appearance in history as the result of robbery [so much for 'property is theft'] or force. On the contrary, it already existed... in the ancient primitive communes of all civilized peoples." Engels gives many examples of the development of private property by trade, individual labor, and the accumulation of wealth in the form of domestication of animals-- none of which involved force or robbery. His logical argument is, however, that before you can use force to take someone's property or to steal it from him, it (i.e., property) must already exist "therefore force may be able to change the possession of, but cannot create, private property as such." If Dühring had meant this he would have been correct but force is NOT at the root of the domination of man by private property.
Nor is force the cause of the "subjection of man to make him do servile work" at least with respect to modern capitalism. At this point Engels gives a long quote from DAS KAPITAL [from Vol. 1: Section One of Chapter XXIV "Conversion of Surplus Value Into Capital"] the upshot of which is that economies based on commodity production where property is based on the labor put into it evolve into capitalist economies where surplus value develops and labor becomes separated from property and "property," Marx writes, "turns out to be the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labour of others or its product, and to be the impossibility on the part of the labourer, of appropriating his own product. The separation of property from labour has become the necessary consequence of a law that apparently originated in their identity."
Engels points out that Dühring never mentions Marx's arguments (since they would demolish his own) and that the whole structure of modern exploitation and servitude "can be explained by purely economic causes; at no point whatever are robbery, force, the state, or political interference of any kind necessary."
Again, Dühring is totally wrong when he writes "political conditions are the decisive cause of the economic situation." If that were the case, Engels says, then capitalism would have been voluntarily brought about by the feudal system; but that didn't happen. In the struggle to overthrow feudalism "the decisive weapon" was the ECONOMIC power of the bourgeoisie. An example being the great French Revolution of 1789 which broke out because the capitalist system had become the dominant economic power but, "The 'political conditions' in France remained unaltered, while the 'economic situation' had outgrown them." As a result the nobles no longer had an important social function but they nevertheless tried to keep control of the social wealth "in the revenues that came to" them.
This is not unlike today. We have a socialized economy in that the large industries and banks etc., could be kept running by their workers alone if the capitalist class vanished overnight-- they too have no important social function. Even though they are useless they still fight to control the social wealth and increase their revenues. When the workers finally wake up to this fact, and their living conditions are as desperate as the French in 1789, the game will be up for the capitalists. A few more depressions will suffice one hopes.
While the living standards of the world's working class approaches, day by day, the level of the French in 1789 we find, as Engels says, "the bourgeoisie has already come close to occupying the position held by the nobility in 1789 [in our day they are no longer "close" they have equaled the position of the old nobility -tr]: it is becoming more and more not only socially superfluous, but a social hindrance; it is more and more becoming separated from productive activity, and like the nobility in the past, becoming more and more a class merely drawing revenues...." All this not only points to a socialist future but decisively shows that Dühring's view that politics determines economics is a "delusion."
Next: Engels on the Theory of Value
About the Author:
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.