Frederick Engels, born 200 years ago, is a giant of the world socialist movement. Although himself a great theorist and revolutionary activist, Engels has spent much of that time in the shadow of Karl Marx, his lifelong friend and collaborator.
Born into a wealthy family in Germany, his trajectory into a fighter for the poor and oppressed was shaped by the revolutionary movements of the time and the rapid development of capitalism.
And as a teenager, he was able to see the horrific conditions endured by workers in the industrial Rhineland district of Germany, where he grew up.
Shortly afterwards, Engels was dispatched to Manchester to work as a clerk in his family’s sewing thread factory.
What he saw when he got there shocked him, and would inform his political work for the rest of his life.
He wrote passionately about the horrors experienced by people sweating at dirty factory machines and living in squalor.
And his personal experience collided with mass movements sweeping across Britain.
At the time in 1842, the Chartist movement was drawing in half a million workers for their campaign on the right to vote.
Two years after he arrived in England he met Marx in France, and the pair began developing ideas together.
Their first book, The Holy Family, was a blistering critique of the ideas of German philosopher Hegel, whose ideas they were both drawn to in their youth.
And released a year later, The Condition of the Working Class in England saw Engels return to the situation of the impoverished masses toiling in the textile mills in north west England.
His book detailed how people were driven to early graves because of dangerous and repetitive work—all for the profits of the bosses.
He described living conditions in St Giles, a poor part of London, “Heaps of garbage and ashes lie in all directions, and the foul liquids emptied before the doors gather in stinking pools”.
No element of working class life was too mundane for Engels, he wrote on housing and he went to great lengths to describe the diets people survived on.
“There remain only bread, cheese, porridge and potatoes, until on the lowest round of the ladder, among the Irish, potatoes form the sole food,” he wrote. “If he gets nothing, he simply starves”.
But the book wasn’t just reporting misery—he used it to explain how capitalism produced these conditions for workers, and to agitate for something different.
And his job served another purpose—he used his wages at the family factory to help finance Marx and his family for over four decades.
His support was so invaluable that on the publication of the first volume of Capital Marx wrote, “It was thanks to you alone that this became possible.”
Engels also enjoyed a close relationship with Marx’s children, who affectionately called him “the general”, because of his love of military history.
In fact, he was so delighted when Laura Marx got married that he drank too much and accidentally sat on and killed his pet hedgehog, Right Honourable.
That’s not to say their friendship was always easy. Despite Engels’ considerable financial support, Marx was scathing of his long-term partner Mary Burns, greeting news of her early death with a request that his friend sent more cash.
The revolutionary movements erupting at the time sharpened even more. Engels and Marx were spurred on to produce their most famous piece of literature—and dedicate their time to revolutionary activism.
They were members of the Communist League in London and he and Marx were commissioned by the organisation to write an explanation of their ideas.
The Communist Manifesto was born, and it was written as a blistering intervention into the revolts spreading through Europe in 1848. Engels wrote what was essentially the first draft, called the Principles of Communism, in the style of 25 questions and answers.
There is no doubt that Engels was an interventionist—and it showed in how he operated. His analysis was designed to shape political ideas and his writing was short, sharp and meant to be understood by everyone.
In the manifesto Marx and Engels sketched out that class conflict was central to society and how workers could take control of society.
The pair argued workers could run it for “the common account, according to a common plan and with the participation of all members of society.”
The uprisings at this time weren’t led by workers, but by the middle class.
Engels was shaped by the revolutionary events of his life and his hopes for transformative change in the future.
In 1847 he reported on the anti-government movement in Paris and returned to the Rhineland the following year.
There, after setting up a daily newspaper with Marx, Engels threw himself into action.
He took part in battles against Prussian troops trying to bring down the revolution, and was seen flying a red flag on a barricade in the town of Elberfeld.
This experience of revolution fed into his writings about how the process of struggle is the driving force of history.
It was not just about small reforms but about fundamental transformation. And because of this, the masses had to participate directly.
As Engels wrote, “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must be in on it, must themselves have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul.”
It wasn’t an academic exercise—he was always looking for opportunities to grab hold of revolutionary moments.
This period marked a turning point for Marx and Engels. They had seen revolution and looked to theorise their experiences in print.
Anti-Duhring, produced in 1878, is a good example of this. Here Engels and Marx argued against utopian and idealistic versions of socialism that were based on a “mish mash” of different ideas rather than a scientific understanding.
So instead of believing that a more egalitarian order would come as some sort of natural progress, they argued that society was constantly changing. And they argued that humans were central to that change.
They used Anti-Duhring to develop the idea that, because workers were at the heart of the system that exploits them, it gives them a unique power to destroy it.
The German Ideology, which Engels authored alongside Marx, outlines one of their most important contributions—their analysis of development throughout history.
Their theory of historical materialism rests on the idea that ordinary people are the ones that drive through the process of history. They wrote, “History is nothing but the activities of man pursuing his aims”.
They said that human beings were part of nature, but distinct from other animals, because they can change the world around them in conscious and imaginative ways.
And they argued that the conditions of people’s lives build and shape their ideas—not the other way round. Put simply, “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
In The German Ideology Marx and Engels argued that workers were the revolutionary class but would need to experience a revolutionary process to obtain the level of skills and experience required to build a socialist society.
They said that revolution was necessary because, “the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” As capitalism had developed, they argued, the forces of production had changed and created a new social force—a large and powerful working class.
The pair pointed to the revolutionary potential of workers under capitalism—but argued that there was nothing automatic about the prevalence of socialism.
It would take workers’ organisation strong enough to smash through the restraints placed on people under a bosses’ system.
It was this desire to build a socialist organisation that drew them to the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International.
The organisation was an attempt at uniting socialists around the world and building solidarity with those in struggle.
When Marx died in 1883, Engels dedicated himself into completing the two unfinished volumes of Capital through to publication.
Still a prolific writer, he continued to produce works on science, the origins of women’s oppression and as interventions into socialist movements across Europe.
Over a century later, Engels’ contributions to how we understand the world around us, makes him a revolutionary for today more than ever.
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