Revolutionary Christianity: Friedrich Engels and the Aufhebung of Religion

PT Through History

Friedrich Engels is not often given due credit for his distinct contributions to the socialist tradition, let alone to biblical and theological debates. This neglect is as much the case in Western Marxism as it is in China, where I work for a good part of each year. In order to make a small contribution to rehabilitating Engels, I would like to explore what may be called his own Aufhebung of religion….

Friedrich Engels is not often given due credit for his distinct contributions to the socialist tradition, let alone to biblical and theological debates. This neglect is as much the case in Western Marxism as it is in China, where I work for a good part of each year. In order to make a small contribution to rehabilitating Engels, I would like to explore what may be called his own Aufhebung of religion – understanding the untranslatable term Aufhebung as both end and transformation, both completion and conversion  into new forms.

In an earlier post I argued that the core of Marx’s Aufhebung of religion may be found in his use of the idea of the fetish. Engels had a somewhat different idea of what such an Aufhebung would look like. However, putting it this way may suggest that they worked and thought on their own. By contrast, nearly every thought they developed was a joint project. They wrote letters to each other every day, and when Engels moved to London, they met every afternoon to talk. In Marx’s study (at Modena Villas), they paced up and down in an X-shape, crossing the middle. Engels would smoke his pipe and Marx his cigars, and they would discuss, debate, and joke for hours. So Marx was fully aware of Engel’s thoughts, making suggestions and criticisms in the process. So also was Engels a direct contributor to Marx’s thought.

With that in mind, how did Engels’s see the Aufhebung of religion? The answer is both simple and surprising: religion (he has in mind Christianity) may become a revolutionary movement. Let us see how he constructs this position, which was really a lifelong project. Engels grew up as a devout, if critical Christian. His family was of the Reformed (Calvinist) part of Christianity. Indeed, his mother was of Dutch background, coming from a country – Holland – that was deeply Calvinist in its north. Engels may have been devout, but he was also critical. He saw the many hypocrisies of the people in his hometown (Elberfeld, part of the twin town of Wuppertal).[1] Their deep piety was coupled with vicious exploitation of poor workers, with disdain for the plight of the latter. As they read their Bibles, they also contemplated ever new ways to turn a profit, not caring how it was done.

As a brilliant young man, Engels studied the newest philosophy and biblical criticism. This study challenged his ‘Wuppertal faith’, pushing him to new horizons and arguments with his close but pious friends (especially Wilhelm and Friedrich Graeber). Their arguments concerned the Bible, theology and philosophy. But in the process of those arguments he gradually realised – painfully – that he was losing his faith.

At the same time, he began to notice an ambivalence in Christianity. It may be deeply conservative, opposed to new discoveries in science and philosophy, indeed opposed to new political directions and supportive of the status quo. At the same time, it could also challenge the very same powers in a revolutionary manner. This insight first appears in some of his comments on the minister of his local church, the renowned preacher, Reverend F. W. Krummacher (who eventually became court chaplain at Potsdam).[2] Krummacher may preach some of the more ridiculous theological positions, but at the same time he criticises earthly rulers and riches as undesirable in God’s sight. If Krummacher had been a little more specific, Engels suggests, and criticised the Prussian government directly, he may well have been seen as a religious revolutionary. Indeed, in his younger years, Krummacher was precisely such a firebrand.[3]

This insight into the political ambivalence of Christianity would grow over the years. On the one hand, it is not uncommon to find in Engels’s works statements concerning the negative and reactionary elements of religion. He writes that religion is a source of mystification and deception. Sometimes for Engels the struggle for communism is also the struggle against the evil effects of  religion.[4] At the same time, he argues again and again for the revolutionary potential of Christianity. Already in his early twenties, he notes what can only be called a revolutionary Christian tradition, with leaders such as Thomas Müntzer, Etienne Cabet and Wilhelm Weitling.[5] This is the first time he mentions such a revolutionary tradition, and it would become a key element of his later work, as also in the detailed studies of Karl Kautsky.[6] Over the following years, Engels would develop this argument further, beginning with a study of the Peasant Revolution in Germany in the sixteenth century.[7] Led by Thomas Müntzer, the direct inspiration of this revolution was Christian theology, or rather, the Bible.

Yet at this point, Engels was still warming up to his central argument. The final statement had to wait until just before his death in 1895, although he had been thinking about it for 40 years.[8] This final statement was a bombshell: the origins of Christianity were revolutionary, religiously and politically.[9] It challenged both his fellow socialists, who were suspicious of religion and its reactionary tendencies, and the churches, which were keen to emphasise the figure of a gentle Jesus and the other-worldly piety of the early Christians. Engels based his argument on three points: 1) early Christianity drew its followers from amongst the poor and exploited, the peasants, slaves and unemployed urban poor; 2) early Christianity shared many of the features of the communist revolutionary movement in which he was involved – such as sects, struggles, lack of finance, and false prophets; 3) eventually it took over the Roman Empire. We may disagree with some aspects of Engels’s argument. But my point is that he makes this argument at all. He sums up his position from a work of the same time:

It is now, almost to the year, sixteen centuries since a dangerous party of overthrow was likewise active in the Roman empire. It undermined religion and all the foundations of the state; it flatly denied that Caesar’s will was the supreme law; it was without a fatherland, was international; it spread over the whole empire, from Gaul to Asia, and beyond the frontiers of the empire. It had long carried on seditious activities underground in secret; for a considerable time, however, it had felt strong enough to come out into the open. This party of overthrow … was known by the name of Christians.[10]

This Aufhebung of religion may be more obvious than that of Marx, but it has been just as influential. Not only did it influence the work of subsequent Marxists, even becoming the policy of some socialist movements (especially the Second International), but it also left a lasting impression among biblical critics and theologians, who continue to debate these issues today. But I would like to close on a slightly different note: did Marx know of Engels’s argument and even approve of it? It seems as though he did, as various comments indicate. One example will suffice: Marx compares the persecution of the International Working Men’s Association with the persecution of the early Christians by the Romans. These earlier assaults had not saved Rome, and so also the assaults on the workers’ movement would not save the capitalist system.[11]



[1] See especially Friedrich Engels, “Letters from Wuppertal,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 2, 7-25 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1839 [1975]).

[2] Engels writes of the passages in Krummacher’s sermons where ‘he speaks of the contradiction between earthly riches and the humility of Christ, or between the arrogance of earthly rulers and the pride of God. A note of his former demagogy very often breaks through here as well, and if he did not speak in such general terms the government would not pass over his sermons in silence’. Engels, “Letters from Wuppertal,” 15.

[3] ‘As a student he was involved in the demagogy of the gymnastic associations, composed freedom songs, carried a banner at the Wartburg festival, and delivered a speech which is said to have made a great impression. He still frequently recalls those dashing times from the pulpit, saying: when I was still among the Hittites and Canaanites’. Engels, “Letters from Wuppertal,” 13.

[4] For example, ‘We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation’. Friedrich Engels, “The Condition of England: Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 444-68 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1844 [1975]), 462. See also Engels, “The Condition of England. I. The Eighteenth Century,” 469-76, 86; Engels, “The Condition of England II: The English Constitution,” 501-4, 10, 12; Friedrich Engels, “Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 25, 3-309 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1877-8 [1987]), 16, 22, 26, 40-1, 62, 67-68, 79, 86, 93-99, 125-26, 30, 44, 232, 44, 300-4.

[5] Friedrich Engels, “Progress of Social Reform on the Continent,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 3, 392-408 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1843 [1975]).

[6] Karl Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, trans. J. L. Mulliken and E. G. Mulliken (London: Fisher and Unwin, 1897); Karl Kautsky, Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus I: Kommunistische Bewegungen im Mittelalter  (Berlin: Dietz, 1976 [1895-97]); Karl Kautsky, Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus II: Der Kommunismus in der deutschen Reformation  (Berlin: Dietz, 1976 [1895-97]); Karl Kautsky and Paul Lafargue, Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus III: Die beiden ersten grossen Utopisten  (Stuttgart: Dietz, 1977 [1922]); Roland Boer, “Karl Kautsky’s Forerunners of Modern Socialism,” Chiasma: A Site for Thought 1, no. 1 (2014).

[7] Friedrich Engels, “The Peasant War in Germany,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 10, 397-482 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1850 [1978]).

[8] Friedrich Engels, “Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 24, 427-35 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1882 [1989]); Friedrich Engels, “The Book of Revelation,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 26, 112-17 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1883 [1990]).

[9] Friedrich Engels, “On the History of Early Christianity,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 27, 445-69 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1894-5 [1990]).

[10] Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France,” 523. Engels also has some criticisms of the early Christians, especially the point that they tended to focus on other-worldly salvation, but he was fully aware that Christianity makes this-worldly claims as well.

[11] Karl Marx, “Record of Marx’s Speech on the Seventh Anniversary of the International,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 22, 633-34 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1871 [1986]), 633; see also, Karl Marx, “On the Hague Congress: A Correspondent’s Report of a Speech Made at a Meeting in Amsterdam on September 8, 1872,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 23, 254-56 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1872 [1988]), 255; Karl Marx, “Marx to Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis in the Hague, London, 22 February 1881, 41 Maitland Park Road, N.W.,” in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 46, 65-7 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1881 [1992]), 67.

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