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Engels showed how humans change the world

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Gabby Thorpe is impressed by Camilla Royle’s new book on the life and work of Engels—a key contributor to Marxism
Issue 2687
England’s slums horrified Engels
England’s slums horrified Engels

The extraordinary life of one of history’s most important revolutionary socialists is explored in A Rebel’s Guide to Engels, released this month.

Author and activist Frederick Engels used his experiences observing the working class in England and across Europe to develop ideas on the need of a workers’ revolution to achieve communism.

His first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was a detailed account of the grim conditions that workers experienced.

It was intended for German audiences, who had not yet experienced the same scale of industrialisation as Britain.

But the book was an important insight into the realities of life in the factories.

Here Engels looked forward to a revolution that he believed the contradictions of capitalist society had prepared the way for.

Engels enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Karl Marx, and together they developed the theory of historical materialism—most notably in The German Ideology.

He later went on to write The Dialectics of Nature, which applied historical materialism to science.

Here Engels was able to show how labour was essential even to human evolution.


And The Communist Manifesto, authored with Marx, came in 1848 at a critical time, when revolt was spreading across Europe.

The revolt in France was brutally crushed by the French National Guard.

Engels said that “the bourgeoisie showed to what insane cruelties of revenge it will be goaded the moment the proletariat dares to take its stand against them as a separate class”. His observations of the high levels of struggle across Europe at the time taught him the centrality of working in bringing about real change.

In 1860, Marx and Engels participated in The International Working Men’s Association—later known as The First International—which brought together workers from across the world.

And, in 1860, Marx completed his first volume of Capital, where he drew extensively from Engels’ earlier writings on the working class in England.

Marx died in 1883. In the years following his death, Engels wrote The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.

The book was based on notes that Marx had made on pioneering US anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and his book Ancient Society.

Origins of the Family looked at how families changed historically—and how women’s oppression arose with the development of class society.

It examines how dramatic changes in agricultural methods, leading to more settled societies, had impacts on how people—and in particular families—were organised.

“Engels showed how, when humans changed the world around them, this also changed their own societies,” argues Camilla.

Engels said he was fighting for a new society where “a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man through any other considerations than real love”.

At the same time as writing Origins of the Family, Engels also used Marx’s notes to finish volumes two and three of Capital.

The works of Engels can still be used today to explain the working class as an agent for change.

This Rebel’s Guide is a great introduction to Engels’ ideas and gives a solid basis for going on to read his works.

Camilla’s analysis of Engels’ ideas shows why they remain vital. It is an essential read for those new to Marxism, or anyone who wants to revisit Engels’ core ideas.


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