Engels – A Revolutionary Life

Engels in old age (Image: Wikimedia commons/CC)

The following book review of Engels – A Revolutionary Life, by John Green (Artery Publications, London 2008) was first published in Socialism Today (monthly magazine of the Socialist Party – CWI England & Wales) in 2008. Peter Taaffe looks at the life of “one of the greatest figures in human history”, whose 200th anniversary (28 November 1820) we are marking.


John Green, the author of this impressive book (Engels – A revolutionary Life), is to be commended for bringing to life for modern readers one of the greatest figures in human history, Friedrich Engels. Gustav Mayer’s book on the same subject, written in the 1930s, which the author freely admits he draws on, is excellent on the life and works of Engels. However, the great merit of this book is that it ‘fills in the gaps’ which the English edition of Mayer did not fully cover, particularly on the personality of Engels, his evolution and his relationship with Marx.

The ideas of the Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales), based on scientific socialism, are identified ‘Marxist’ but Engels deserves to be bracketed with the great ‘philosopher of the millennium’, Karl Marx himself. This is because he not only sustained Marx by sacrificing his own energies to finance Marx’s work but also because of the great contribution he made to their joint ideas on historical materialism, philosophy, economics and many other fields, which laid the foundations for the modern struggle for socialism.

Indeed, in some respects, Engels anticipated Marx on the role of the working class and socialism. This was gained through his experience in England in particular, in the early 1840s, of the Chartist movement – the first independent movement of the working class historically. He was also at one with Marx in analysing the conditions in the factories and in the ideas of economics and philosophy, which are the cornerstones of Marxism. ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in 1844’ is a marvellously written book, which can help to illuminate even the problems of today’s labour movement. It compliments Marx’s chapters on the working day in the first volume of Capital. Astonishingly, it was written by a 24-year old, drawn from his experiences in Manchester- where Engels was later forced to work in his father’s factory – and invokes the picture of China today. The author points out that in the early 19th century, “Life expectancy in Manchester is around 26 years, the lowest figure since the years of the plague.”

Green brings to life how Marx and Engels, almost at the same time, evolved from acceptance of the idealist philosophy of their great teacher Hegel to the ideas of dialectical materialism. Indeed, Marx and Engels rescued ‘dialectics’ -the method of thought which seeks to understand the all-sided character of phenomena, first enunciated by the ancients, the Greeks – by refuting Hegel’s idealism. They “turned Hegel upside down” and put him “from standing on his head firmly back on his feet”.

Ideas, consciousness, are expressions of material forces, which are the driving impulse of history whereas Hegel viewed the evolution of nature, humankind and social relations as based on the development of ideas. Marx and Engels’ ideas, either consciously or unconsciously, are accepted today by most conscientious analysts.

The economy is the ultimate determinant of the ‘political superstructure’, the state, politics, etc, argued Marx and Engels. This idea, expressed crudely Bill Clinton before he was elected in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid”, is also almost taken for granted today. This does not mean that Marx and Engels had a crude determinist position. On the contrary, they analysed how the state – part of the political superstructure – both had an effect on and is, in turn, affected by the development of economic processes.

Friedrich Engels emerges from this book as one of the greatest but also one of the most human figures in the socialist and the genuine communist movement. In fact, the mere outlining of Engels’ approach to life, as well as politics, creates in the reader a feeling of great admiration, particularly for socialists and Marxists today who share Engels’ vision for the future. He broke from his bourgeois background to place himself on the standpoint of the working class in his ideas but also sacrificed, in order to give the necessary finance to allow Marx to pursue his colossal labour and lay the foundations – particularly through the volumes of Capital – upon which scientific socialism rests today.

The author compares him to Che Guevara and there are some undoubted and striking similarities. Both were men of action, broke from their privileged backgrounds to place themselves at the disposal of the working class and the poor. They were true, both to themselves and also to economic and political processes they accepted, and were courageous.

But there were also big differences in their personalities and particularly the history of these two great figures. Che Guevara, at the time of his murder, had not freed himself completely from the caricature of Marxism purveyed by the then world ‘communist’, in reality, Stalinist, movement. He was, however, evolving through his own experiences towards a critique of the ideas of Stalinism and quasi-Stalinism.

Engels, on the other hand, if he had died at the same age as Che Guevara, would still be considered a great theoretician, as well as a fighter for the liberation of the working class. Friedrich Engels had one thing in common with Che Guevara: he participated in big battles in the 1848 revolution, commanding troops, and subsequently earning the nickname of ‘the general’ from Marx, his family and his comrades.

Admirable character

On a personal level also, Friedrich Engels was an admirable character. Not for him a forced marriage or relationships with women from his own privileged background. He defied the capitalist conventions of the time and his family to live first of all with Mary Burns, who had a profound effect on him in relation to the national struggle in Ireland at the time. Her sunny character and temperament gave consolation and joy to Engels as he slaved away in the horrendous conditions in Manchester in order to sustain Marx and his intellectual labours.

So attached was he to Mary that when she died, Marx displayed a certain detachment because of money troubles and this led to a temporary cooling in their relationship, which, however, did not last long. Engels showed concern and acted for people in difficulties in the émigré circles, to members of Mary Burns’ family and many others. After Mary Burns died, the gap in his life was filled after some delay by her sister Lizzie, who also was a ferocious battler for Irish national liberation.

Some of the most interesting parts of this book are of Marx and Engels’ collaboration in the division of labour in the establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA, the “First International” – 1864-1876) and the culmination of the work of this body, in a sense, in the great Paris Commune of 1871. Because of his involvement in ‘business’, Engels did not take an official position in the IWA’s work because this would have provided ammunition for its enemies that a ‘capitalist’ was involved in a body directed against capitalism itself. But his influence and work was far-reaching and telling. This earned him the bitter opposition of the state, particularly the German state of Bismarck, who deployed a small army of spies to check on and, if possible, to spoil the work of both Marx and Engels for the international workers’ movement.

Engels and Marx, as this book demonstrates, argued for decades for the political independence of the working class from the capitalists. This was the case even when they advocated tactical and ‘critical’ support for specific actions of the rising capitalists, for instance in the 1848 revolution. They fought for an independent party of the working class – in the case of Britain for almost 50 years. This is the same task which the Socialist Party, socialists, trade unionists and militant workers have before them today with the collapse of New Labour into an openly capitalist party. The difference is that the timescale will be much shorter for the emergence of such a formation, as the examples of other countries’ first steps show: the development of The Left party in Germany, the coalition around SYRIZA in Greece, etc.

Insisting upon the working class as the main agent of socialist change, Marx and Engels came into collision in the IWA, as is well known, with the anarchists led by Bakunin. The author is mistaken when he argues that Marx and Engels “seriously underestimated the role of the socially less-developed countries”. He accredits the support for Bakunin and the anarchists in countries like Spain and Italy at the time to the “too critical” attitude of Marx and Engels and an “over-concentration on economics”. But the real reason why the anarchists found an echo in these countries was the character of the economy then, which were relatively undeveloped, with the prevalence of small-scale industry and, therefore, the lack of a large working class united by big industry.

This was the social soil upon which anarchism could develop. Even in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the prevalence of small-scale firms and, therefore, the scattered nature of the working class, helped account for the support for the anarchists in Catalonia and other areas. The onset of heavy industry helped to relegate these ideas to the margins of the workers’ movement.

German Social democracy

Engels’ work and the careful nurturing of an independent working-class party in Germany, the Social-Democratic Party, saw it emerge as the “strongest mass socialist party in the world”. He pointed out that even the anti-socialist laws, introduced in October 1878 by Bismarck, which effectively banned the party until 1891, ultimately strengthened the party: “Herr Bismarck, who has worked for us for the last seven years as if we are paying him for it, now seems incapable of moderating himself in his efforts to accelerate the emergence of socialism.” The author comments: “He is right: in the Reichstag in 1871 there were only two representatives of the party, based on a vote of 3.2%, by 1890, this will rise to 35, with 19.9% of the vote, but by 1912 only 17 years after Engels’ death, the party win 110 seats (out of a total of around 400) with 34.8% of the vote.”

Yet without Engels’ colossal influence, this mighty party, after he died, because the leadership was incapable of consistently following his and Marx’s method, was unprepared for the huge social convulsions of war and its aftermath. Consequently, the working class paid a huge price, including ultimately the destruction of the workers’ organisations after Hitler came to power in 1933.

Engels, as his history showed, was prepared for all kinds of changes in the situation confronting the workers’ movement. The author is wrong when he repeats some of the legends about Engels’ introduction to ‘Class Struggles in France’ where he appears to be arguing against ‘barricades’ – that is the arming of the working class and street fighting – because of the new situation confronting the workers’ movement. This was interpreted by later renegades from Marxism, such as Kautsky, in a centrist and reformist fashion, of partial and piecemeal reforms alone as the method to achieve the goals of the workers’ movement. On the contrary, as Trotsky and Lenin pointed out, Engels was dealing with one specific historical phase. Even his words are qualified, as Engels emphasised that the ‘barricades’ – the organised resistance of the working class to the onslaught of armed capitalism ready to destroy democratic rights – would be required at certain stages.

The author is also wrong in presenting the Mensheviks (minority) in the Russian Revolution as standing on Engels’ ideas in the theory of ‘stages’ in a revolution; first ‘democracy’, then ‘socialism’ after some defined interval in the future. The Bolsheviks are accordingly criticised for seeming to conflict with Marx’s alleged ideas as to where a revolution would first occur. He writes: “We can’t let them [Marx and Engels] off the hook entirely. It was, after all their ideas that laid the basis and made possible the building of communism as a force and led to the subsequent revolutions.”

On the contrary, the regimes that subsequently developed after the isolation of the Russian Revolution – Stalinism, a one-party totalitarian regime – had nothing in common with Marx and Engels’ ideas. The Bolsheviks were correct to begin the revolution in Russia – which was the weakest link in the chain of world capitalism, as Lenin put it – but they envisaged this as the overture to a world revolution. Only a successful revolution in an advanced industrial country could have been the salvation of the Russian Revolution. In isolation, Russia was doomed either to return to capitalism or see a deformed workers’ state emerge, although the Bolsheviks never imagined that the monstrosity of Stalinism would arise. Marx and Engels could not foresee – nor could anybody – at the time they were formulating their ideas in the nineteenth century of how subsequent events could work out in all countries.

What is valuable in this book is not the latter chapters but those which show the evolution of the ideas which provide the bedrock of Marxism, the tools with which to carve out a new socialist future for humankind. Friedrich Engels, a towering historical figure, should be saluted in his own right for great works such as ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, ‘Anti-Dühring’, ‘The Peasant War in Germany’, ‘The Housing Question’ and many, many other contributions to socialist and Marxist thought. Marx was undoubtedly the greater – fully recognised by Engels – in laying the foundations for ideas that will lead to a new socialist society in the future. But in his labours he was joined by Friedrich Engels, a great figure to inspire and educate the new layers of socialist fighters who are emerging.



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December 2020