Analysis History

Friedrich Engels at 200

By Andy Ford

Friedrich Engels was born 200 years ago in Wuppertal, Germany. Although he always deferred to his friend, Karl Marx, as the genius of the partnership, Engels’ contribution was extremely significant in itself, and he jointly worked out, with Marx, the main elements of their common approach to philosophy, economics, politics and history.

The fundamentals of their world outlook were worked out just six tumultuous years, from 1842 to 1848, and although there was a huge amount of development and deepening of their ideas over the next decades, the framework remained the same. In the words of Lenin, Marxism “is the legitimate successor to the best that humanity produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism”.

Well-off Bourgeois Family

Engels came from a well-off bourgeois family, but from an early age he noticed the degradation of the environment and the crushing of human potential that was inherent in the ‘factory system’ of production which was then new. While in Berlin on compulsory military service, he came into contact with the ‘Young Hegelians’, young philosophy students who were subjecting the ideas of Prussian philosopher Hegel to ferocious criticism, and who numbered the young Karl Marx amongst their number.

The Young Hegelians used Hegel’s philosophical ideas to question and critique the Prussian state, which Hegel himself had hailed as a ‘triumph of rationality’. But Hegel’s outer conservatism contained an inner radicalism, the dialectic, a philosophy of change, which accepted nothing as eternal or unchanging.

In Engels’ words “Whoever placed the emphasis on the Hegelian system could be conservative in both spheres; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition, both in religion and politics”. (From ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy’)

Engels and the Young Hegelians

The ideas of the Young Hegelians did indeed set both Marx and Engels, on the road to the most extreme opposition to capitalist society. This was, of course, not to the liking of Engels’ bourgeois family, who then sent the 22-year-old Engels off to Manchester to take up a post as a clerk in the family firm, hoping to steer him into commerce and away from revolution.

In Manchester, he became romantically involved with a young Irish textile worker, Mary Burns, and through her he began to see the city through working class eyes. Mary Burns was able to take him to the workers’ districts and speak with the Manchester workers. It is a real shame that no photograph or portrait of Mary Burns survives, and even her grave is unknown, as she clearly had such an influence on Engels, and also on Marxism. She and Engels were partners until her death in 1863.

Engels on Economics

From his vantage point in the family firm Engels could begin to see how the wheels of capitalist industry were turned. The result was the Outline of a Critique of Political Economy, written in 1843. Engels sent it to the journal being edited by Marx in Paris, the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, where it sat alongside Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question in which Marx makes a difference between ‘political’ freedom’ and ‘human freedom’ – merely setting a group of people ‘free’ into a society dominated by a rich minority is still not a real freedom for them to be fully human.

Surprisingly, the Jahrbucher also contained a long article by Engels on Thomas Carlyle, which shows how quickly he had assimilated the conditions of English life. The Outline itself surveyed and criticised the ideas of Mercantilism; the economists Jean-Baptiste Say, Adam Smith and David Ricardo and includes a ferocious attack on the theories of Thomas Malthus (“…this vile, infamous theory”).  Engels’ contribution to political economy has been the subject of a book by the Marxist economist, Michael Roberts, reviewed here.

Although he wrote little on economics over the rest of his life, Engels’ book is a sharp and well-written survey of the best of capitalist economics and the theories of value, monopoly and competition of the day and an unsparing critique of capitalism. Most importantly, with his Outline Engels drew Karl Marx’s attention to the importance of economics for any real project of revolution and laid the seed for what became the greatest fruit of their partnership, the four volumes of Capital.

The Conditions of the Working Class

His investigations of working class life, with the help of Mary Burns, gave rise to what was a truly extraordinary book to come from a 24-year-old German visitor: The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844: From Personal Observation and Authentic Sources.

The book is an in-depth look at early British capitalism and the industries it created; the working class in its various sections, its methods of struggle and its political activities. It ends by looking to the future prospects for working class struggle. In a way, it is the world’s first ‘Perspectives Document’. Over the course of 21 months the young Engels had “...forsook the company of dinner parties, the port wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure time almost exclusively to intercourse with plain Working Men;  I am both glad and proud to have done so”.

The World’s First Industrial City

He enumerates the industries of England – spinning, weaving, lace, dyeing, printing, the wool trade, iron, pottery, coal, agriculture, railways and canals; and traces the emergence of the working class, specifically the proletariat (and its Irish component) in these industries. He describes the cities of the whole country but then gives an almost street-by-street description of the new city of Manchester, at that time the world’s first industrial city. There are even specific chapters on the miners and agricultural workers.

From this material base he proceeded to look at the political superstructure, the politics and morals of the English bourgeois, its law and its justice. In contrast he describes the political methods of the working class – machine smashing, trade unions, strikes, uprisings – and its political expression, Chartism, and he concludes with a sketch of possible future development, The Chances of the English Bourgeoisie.

The Holy Family: Co-authored with Marx

Marx had been reading Engels’ book as it was published in sections and developed the ideas further in his own Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. When Engels met Marx in Paris he discussed the book with Marx who was now convinced by it that the proletariat, the working class, was the force in society that could lead an advance to socialism.

The two were now on common ground. In Engels’ words, “When I visited Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident and our joint work dates from that time.”

In Paris the two of them entered into their first collaboration, The Holy Family, which critiqued the Young Hegelians, who although now obscure, were still very influential in academic circles. The book weaves together the philosophical ideas of Marx with the insight of Engels that the working class is the only class which can potentially liberate the whole of humanity:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature” (‘The Holy Family’, Chapter 4).

The German Ideology

All of this was synthesised in what is really the first work to express the world outlook of Marxism, The German Ideology, co-written in 1845-46, but only published in 1932. Financial support for the book fell through and it was “left to the gnawing criticism of the mice”, according to Engels, in the printer’s cellar.

The German Ideology brings together materialism, the criticism of the state as a class state, political economy and the crucial role of the proletariat. It is an incredibly rich book and even if it was not published in their lifetimes, it allowed Engels and Marx to clarify their unique set of political ideas, ideas with almost limitless possibilities, and it was the foundation of all their later work, and the foundation of Marxism itself.

One of its key ideas is that people produce themselves through labour. There is no fixed ‘human nature’ and neither do people or societies develop through the expression of some inner ‘spiritual essence’. Instead Engels and Marx see a relationship between nature and humanity, linked by labour. They took a materialist standpoint, but not the crude materialism of Newton’s clockwork universe, but an active materialism that took the active understanding of Hegel’s dialectics.

The Ruling Ideas of Society

Instead of things they saw processes and inter-relationships. They examined the ideology of official society, and the fact that the ruling ideas of any period are always those of the elite. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, ie the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

They also examine the “real basis of ideology” – the development of towns, the opposition between mental and physical labour, the rise of manufacture and then of industrial production, the formation of a world market, and the basis of law and the state in property relations:

 “Since the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests, and in which the whole civil society of an epoch is epitomised, it follows that the State mediates in the formation of all common institutions and that the institutions receive a political form. Hence the illusion that law is based on the will, and indeed on the will divorced from its real basis — on free will. Similarly, justice is in its turn reduced to the actual laws.”

The Communist Manifesto 1848

The huge effort, learning and creativity put into The German Ideology bore fruit two years later in the Communist Manifesto, one of the most read, translated and discussed books in world history. The Manifesto was published on 21 February 1848 in Brussels, where the two friends had been exiled. In Brussels they were commissioned by an underground socialist organisation, the Communist League, to write a programme for the movement and Engels and Marx succeeded in distilling the essence of their joint work in The German Ideology into a short, memorable, and almost poetic political programme.

But Engels was not just a thinker and philosopher. After the Manifesto was published, he threw himself whole-heartedly into the German Revolution of 1848. Following his participation in an armed uprising in southern Germany, Engels had to flee to Switzerland and then London, where he was reunited with Marx in November 1849.

Once back in England, Engels rejoined the family firm in Manchester from which employment he was able to support Marx as he researched and wrote Capital.

Engels’ Voluminous Later Work

For the next twenty years Engels wrote little, except for sketches on Afghanistan and Poland, (both of which are outstanding), but on retirement he was able to move to London to be nearer to Marx and pick up his studies and his writing again. The results were The Housing Question (1872) in which he opposes reformist or philanthropic solutions to the shortage of housing in Germany and calls for social revolution; The Role Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876) which anticipated many of the ideas of modern palaeontology (with a modern appraisal here);  Anti-Duhring’ (1877), written to defend Marxist ideas on politics, philosophy and economics against the academic onslaught in Germany  led Herr Duhring; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) a demarcation of scientific socialism from middle class wish lists; Dialectics of Nature’(1883) which explains how dialectical processes are to be found in nature as well as in logic and the history of ideas; Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) which laid the foundations for a socialist feminism by explaining that for most of human history people lived in sexual equality without money or the state; and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End Of Classical German Philosophy (1886) in which Engels returned to the ground traversed by him, and his friend and co-author Marx 40 years previously in The German Ideology.

Contribution of Engels was Important

Engels died in 1895; he wanted no memorial and so and his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head. There is a tendency to concentrate on Marx, but the contribution of Engels was just as important in the foundation of socialist theory. Marx certainly thought so, because alone out of all his possible contemporaries Marx chose to collaborate with Engels as they fashioned their philosophy and political programme to change the world.

Courtesy Left Horizons