Engels’ influence from Eastbourne to Beijing

In the following article, which was originally carried by the Morning Star, John Pateman reports on the ‘Engels in Eastbourne’ international conference, which was held in the English seaside resort that was the favourite holiday destination of the co-founder of scientific socialism for many years and from where his ashes were scattered into the sea.

John gives particular attention to the prominent role played by Chinese scholars in the deliberations, with the opening session being on Chinese Perspectives on Engels and Marxism. He notes:

“It is clear that adapting Marxism to the Chinese context will play a crucial role in promoting the modernisation of China. As [Professor Xia] Wei [of Fudan University] observed, ‘Modernisation will be the most likely path to end the absolute power of capital and create a new form of human civilisation.'”

The article also highlights contributions from British Marxist academics, Terrel Carver (University of Bristol), Lindsey German (University of Hertfordshire), Derek Wall (Goldsmiths University London) and Joe Pateman (University of Sheffield), along with Helena Sheehan from Ireland’s Dublin City University and Palle Rasmussen from Denmark’s Aalborg University.

A previous report on this conference may be read here.

“ENGELS in Eastbourne” was an international conference to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, organised by the University of Brighton and the International Association of Marx and Engels Humanities Studies (MEIA), held at the View Hotel, Eastbourne, from June 1-3 2023.

During the last 15 years or so of his life Engels adopted Eastbourne as his favourite go-to English seaside town.

Whenever he had time to spare, he would hurry down to the south coast, usually accompanied by a member of Marx’s family and close friends.

His favourite walk was along the seafront and over the downs to Beachy Head, where his ashes were scattered after his death in 1895.

The opening session of the conference was Chinese Perspectives on Engels and Marxism and included the topics Marxism and Chinese-style Modernisation from Professor Wang Binglin, of Beijing Normal University, Interpretation of the Materialistic-Historical View of Chinese-style Modernisation from Professor Xia Wei, of Fudan University, and On the Outlook of Nature in Engels and Its Contemporary Significance from Professor Wang Xinyan, of Wuhan University.

It was interesting to hear how Engels’ ideas are being used by the current political leadership in China to reinvigorate Marxism in line with the recent 20th congress of the Communist Party of China.

It is clear that adapting Marxism to the Chinese context will play a crucial role in promoting the modernisation of China. As Wei observed, “Modernisation will be the most likely path to end the absolute power of capital and create a new form of human civilisation.”

The keynote address by Terrel Carver, professor of political theory at the University of Bristol, explored the development of The Communist Manifesto and the contributions made to it by Engels and Marx.

Carver suggested that Engels’ journalistic style is most evident in parts one and two, while Marx’s influence can be clearly seen in parts three and four.

Day two of the conference opened with the plenary session Friedrich Engels: Life, Politics and Early Work, followed by the panels “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, gender and liberation;” “Science, morality and labour;” “Nature, ecology and climate;” and “Socialism, the state and utopianism.”

Lindsey German, of University of Hertfordshire, gave a presentation on Engels the revolutionary, in which she made it clear that Engels spent his whole life engaged in political activity.

He was, like Marx, committed to the idea of working-class revolution and he saw his first glimpses of this in the Lancashire general strike of 1842, and the Chartist movement more generally.

His direct experience of revolution was that of Germany in 1848 where he and Marx described themselves as on the extreme left of the democracy movement.

Yang Li of Peking University provided an excellent analysis of ideas of governance in Engels’ famous work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

According to Engels, different systems of governance (driven by the forces of production) can be divided into three stages: the governance system in the ancient gentile society (which he described as a kind of “wonderful constitution”), the governance system in a modern state (private ownership), and the governance system in the future society (the “association of free people,” which will be a revival of the ancient gentile governance).

Derek Wall of Goldsmiths University’s paper on Engels and climate change was also very stimulating.

With the Met Office recording 2022 as Britain’s hottest year on record and concern over climate change rising, it is worth considering how concepts and approaches mobilised by Engels might help us in 2023 to better understand this challenge.

Engels argues that human action has specific and complex effects on the rest of nature, noting that severe environmental problems resulted from our actions.

Joe Pateman from the University of Sheffield gave an astute analysis of Engels’ views on state socialism.

Engels’ sharp criticism of state socialism has been overlooked. This “false socialism,” as Engels termed it, was, on the one hand, the fruit of the petty-bourgeois illusions of the utopian socialists, who anticipated the introduction of socialism from above by the government, and on the other hand, the result of the deliberate falsification of the policy of the exploiting state by its ideologists. They aimed to paint every government effort to regulate the economy and social relations as socialism.

The keynote speaker was Helena Sheehan from Dublin City University, who focused on the concept of totality and the legacy of Engels and subsequent controversies.

The question-and-answer session that followed her talk was lively, with some participants trying to defend Western Marxism, while others attacked the concept of socialism in one country.

Day three had sessions on war, militarism, colonialism and revolution. Engels was an acknowledged expert on military matters which is why he was called “The General.”

Palle Rasmussen of Aalborg University in Denmark gave the fascinating talk Military Tactics, Technology and Power: Friedrich Engels on the Evolution of Warfare.

Engels studied and wrote about military history and theory from the 1850s and considered the complex relationships between sociopolitical regimes, technology, military organisation and tactics.

Comrade Terry McCarthy, independent scholar and regular letter-writer to the Morning Star, gave a barnstorming Marxist-Leninst tour-de-force about his own lifelong career as a revolutionary communist. He began work at 15 as a labourer on the London docks and joined the Young Communist League as a teenager.

Terry was active in anti-fascist and trade union movements, became a shop steward and was involved in several industrial disputes. He studied historical materialism in the GDR and the Soviet Union.

McCarthy told the story of what happened when a plaque remembering Engels’ time in Eastbourne was unveiled at 4 Cavendish Place on May Day 1976. This event was attended by the local Conservative mayor, the Cuban ambassador, and the GDR’s charge d’affaires.

Many dignitaries and visitors from both the GDR and the Cuban embassies came to town for the ceremony, along with their families and friends.

The Tory and Liberal politicians in Eastbourne were unhappy about the presence of the GDR, Cuban and local communists. The Cubans responded by deliberately parking on double-yellow lines and claiming diplomatic immunity to avoid fines.

The GDR brought a vanload of heavies with them who chased off a National Front mob that tried to disrupt the unveiling ceremony.

Engels in Eastbourne was a timely event that was well-organised and well-attended, with plenty of lively debate stimulated by a wide range of excellent speakers.

The presence of comrades from China was particularly welcome. They were able to give first-hand accounts of the contribution that Engels’ work is making to socialist construction in China.

The work of the MEIA is also important: it is based in Britain and aims to promote the works of Marx and Engels and provide a platform for exchanges and discussions between researchers in China, Britain and other parts of the world.

The association also organises specialist visits to historical sites related to Marx and Engels in London, Manchester (where it is renovating the Red Dragon pub where Marx and Engels drank together), Paris, Brussels and Germany.

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