28th November 2020, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Alongside his great friend, collaborator, and comrade, Karl Marx, Engels was one of the greatest thinkers of his time.
But he wasn’t just a theoretician. He was a man of action, a class fighter who sought to place himself at the standpoint of the working class and its struggle for socialism. He rejected the privileges and comforts he could so easily have accepted for a life that he was born into.
An extremely humble man, who often downplayed his own historic contribution to ‘scientific socialism’, he commented: “What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw farther, and took a broader and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best men of talent. Without him, the theory would be far from what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name.”
But Engels deserves to be placed alongside Marx as an equal. He not only sustained Marx by sacrificing his own energies to finance Marx’s work, but also made groundbreaking contributions to their joint ideas on historical materialism, philosophy, economics and in many other fields, which laid the foundations for socialist change, both in their time and for the future.
Engels was born on 28 November 1820 in what is now Wuppertal, Germany. His family were wealthy, strict Christians and owned cotton-textile mills in Germany and Salford, near Manchester, in England.
However, even as a teenager, Engels rejected the conservative life and religious conventions he was meant to follow. Sent to the German industrial cities of Elberfeld and Bremen to learn the family business, a teenage Engels was radicalised by the horrors experienced by working-class men and women in these early industrial centres.
In his letters from Elberfeld, he wrote: “Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, particularly the factory workers in Wuppertal; syphilis and lung diseases are so widespread as to be barely credible; in Elberfeld alone, out of 2,500 children of school age 1,200 are deprived of education and grow up in the factories – merely so that the manufacturer need not pay the adults, whose place they take, twice the wage he pays a child.
“But the wealthy manufacturers have a flexible conscience, and causing the death of one child more or one less does not doom a pietist’s soul to hell, especially if he goes to church twice every Sunday.”
While serving his military service in Berlin, Engels encountered and began to associate with the ‘Young Hegelians’, as did a young Karl Marx – although they wouldn’t meet in person till 1842, and it wasn’t until their second meeting in 1844 that they realised their analysis and conclusions of capitalism were the same.
But it was Engels’ experiences and work in Manchester and Salford that placed him firmly at the standpoint and in the heart of the working class that was developing rapidly internationally.
Brought to Salford in 1842 to work as a clerk in his father’s factory, Engels spent every second of his free time immersing himself in the lives, work, homes and bars, of the immensely poor and oppressed working class of the city.
“I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. I have done so: I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port-wine and champagne of the middle-classes, and devoted my leisure-hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain workingmen” (nb. in the language of his day “workingmen” included working women).
He was helped into this world by a young Irish immigrant factory worker Mary Burns, who would become his partner both in life and in the struggle. Engels rejected the norms and expectations of his class background to live with Mary.
Standpoint of workers
Still only 25 years old, Engels published his first book, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, which collated in vivid detail every aspect of life in the squalid conditions for workers who he had quite literally lived and worked among.
But like Karl Marx, who he would meet for the second time in 1844 in Paris, Engels did not write or report for the sake of it or for journalistic praise.
His experiences in north-west England helped lay the basis for the cornerstone of Marx and Engels’ work – that it was the working class that would be the key force in society, and that as it became a class for itself, could transform society along socialist lines – an idea that for its time was revolutionary in itself but was rooted in Marx and Engels’ method of analysis.
Marx and Engels had, at almost the same time, evolved from acceptance of the ‘idealist’ philosophy of their great teacher Hegel to the ideas of ‘dialectical materialism’. ‘Dialectics’ is the method of thought which seeks to understand the all-sided character, contradictions, and interaction of events and processes. They “turned Hegel upside down” and put him “from standing on his head firmly back on his feet,” thereby rejecting Hegel’s idealist standpoint.
Hegel’s believed ideas and thoughts came from outside of the evolution of nature, humankind, and social relations, and were quasi-religious. But Marx and Engels argued that ideas and people’s consciousness are expressions of material forces shaping individuals and societies. That is, they are products of social struggles, events, developments in the economy, relations between social classes, etc. These are the driving impulse of history.
The two young men never looked back after this second meeting. They became best friends and comrades for the rest of their lives.
Marx and Engels spent much of the 1840s in Paris, then Brussels, developing and honing their understanding of the world around them and its development from past societies.
The two never swayed politically, criticising the many idealist and utopian socialists of the time – such as Proudhon and Robert Owen – who thought appeals of ‘kindness, reason and fraternity’ could win people to a better world.
They fought to win people to the idea of ‘class struggle,’ and that in capitalist society two key distinct classes existed – the bourgeoisie (ruling/capitalist class) and the proletariat (working class). And only the working class as an independent force, and through its economic, social, and political struggles (because the bourgeoisie wouldn’t give up their wealth voluntarily), was capable of taking society any further towards socialism.
Despite the image that most historians like to portray, Marx and Engels developed their ideas from their central involvement in the many struggles of the day. They were socialists engaged in putting their ideas into practice, not academics.
They helped to forge the Communist League in 1847, and at its second congress later that year they were asked to produce a manifesto and guide to communism that would become ‘The Communist Manifesto’. This short masterpiece is now regarded as a classic, and for any socialist, it is still relevant today.
It was, however, a document for its time, a perspective on the rapidly changing world around them, a guide to action, and a programme for the toiling working classes of the world. Nonetheless, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, decades later, praised its ‘astounding freshness’: “Assuredly the young authors (Marx was 29, Engels 27) were able to look further into the future than anyone before them, and perhaps anyone since.”
Its opening lines to the first chapter ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’ assert: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…
“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat…”
The Manifesto ends with its oft-quoted rallying cry: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!”
It was published in 1848, just as a sea of revolutionary waves erupted across Europe. Both men returned to revolutionary Germany, publishing a paper between 1 June 1848 and 19 May 1849 (Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie – ‘New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy’) to intervene in the events and movements. Engels was directly involved in the fighting, commanding troops, and subsequently earning the nickname of ‘the general’ from Marx, his family and his comrades.
Marx and Engels gave tactical but critical support to the revolutionary movements, recognising the limited ‘bourgeois-democratic’ character of the struggle. They never held back from calling out and attacking the liberal ‘petit-bourgeois’ leadership, who were quick to compromise with the backward, feudal-monarchist forces. Engels was once even arrested by the revolutionary forces because of his regular public disdaining of the ‘petit-bourgeois’ leaders!
As the revolutionary wave was pushed back, Engels had to flee back to Britain in 1849 and returned to work at his family’s factory in Salford, where he stayed until 1869. His income helped to fund his and Marx’s revolutionary work. Indeed, with Engels’ support Marx was able to work full-time in London.
Engels hated his time at the mill and the ‘double life’ it entailed. The day he was able to give it up and become a full-time revolutionary was the happiest of his life.
Marx and Engels would write daily to each other and continued to collaborate on the theoretical underpinning of socialism, but also to involve themselves in working-class struggle and the tasks of building a revolutionary party, both in Britain and internationally. This effort resulted in establishing the International Workingmen’s Association which, historically, became known as the First International in 1864.
Central role of the working class
In the International, Marx and Engels never held back from arguing that the working class is the main agent of socialist change. This tenet resulted in continual clashes inside the International with the anarchists, led by Mikhail Bakunin, that would eventually lead to its breakup in 1876, following the defeat of the revolutionary uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871.
Afterwards, Marx and Engels helped organise international support for the surviving Paris insurgents. Engels would also go on to play a role in the development of the Second International (founded in 1889) as well.
Marx and Engels fought for an independent party of the working class – in Britain and other countries in Europe, particularly helping to nurture the early development of the German Social-Democratic Party.
This is the same task which the Socialist Party, socialists, trade unionists, and militant workers face today, and much of Engels’ and Marx’s writings are extremely relevant still today – for example, Engels’ observations on the evolution of trade unions’ national traits under capitalism.
“The unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English [Engels means ‘Britain’]. It is said on the continent that the English, and especially the working-men, are cowardly, that they cannot carry out a revolution because, unlike the French, they do not riot at intervals, because they apparently accept the bourgeois regime so quietly. This is a complete mistake. The English working men are second to none in courage; they are quite as restless as the French, but they fight differently.”
In his later life, Engels was able to delve further into the processes and science behind Marxism and socialism and the development of society throughout history. Producing more masterpieces with ‘Anti-Dühring’ in 1878, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ in 1880 (which was a reworking of three chapters from ‘Anti-Dühring’ in a more accessible form), and ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ in 1884, that gave a Marxist explanation of women’s oppression under class society, and how to fight it.
In 1882, in the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, Engels ventured that the revolution in a peasant-dominated country like Russia at the time could be the spark for revolutions elsewhere. “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.” He thereby dismissed the false idea that Marx and Engels thought that a workers’ revolution could or would develop only in an advanced capitalist economy.
Of course, although the revolution first broke out in semi-feudal Russia (capitalism’s ‘weakest link’, as Lenin described the country), and after the October socialist revolution rapidly spread to other countries, the subsequent revolutions elsewhere failed, largely because of the inadequate and weak leadership of those revolutionary parties, and history took a different course.
With the assistance of Engels, Volume One of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ (which laid bare the inner workings of capitalism) was published in 1867, with Engels commenting: “As long as capitalists and workers have existed in the world, no single book that could have had such importance for workers has appeared”.
After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels undertook the prodigious task of collating and deciphering Marx’s unfinished notes into what was to become Volumes Two and Three.
Engels died in 1895. Like his best friend and comrade Karl Marx, his contribution to the struggles of the working class is as important and crucial today as when they lived.
Capitalism has taken society forward immensely. All around us we see the huge steps forward in technology, science, and understanding. Yet, we live in a world in which living standards, life expectancy, health, and the ability to enjoy life are being driven back. In many parts of the world, the terrible living and working conditions that Engels witnessed in Manchester are not much different even today.
The tasks laid out by Marx and Engels over 170 years ago for socialists to build working-class parties across the world to fight to change society along socialist lines remain central and urgent to the Socialist Party and its co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International today.
Only through a successful socialist revolution, which Engels and Marx fought for, can humanity begin to utilise and plan all the enormous science, technology, and abundance of wealth that exists through the historical labour of workers in class society. Then, when ‘workers of the world unite’, it will be possible to create a harmonious world where the horrors of capitalism are firmly put into the dustbin of history.