Friedrich Engels described himself as “second fiddle” to his friend and comrade Karl Marx. Marx is rightly counted among the most influential thinkers the world has ever seen. But what role did Engels play in the founding of Marxism?
Marx himself said he would not have been able to produce Capital without the support of Engels.
As a young man Engels went to Manchester and worked for his father’s textile business. There he observed the dramatic effects of the Industrial Revolution on people’s lives, writing up his findings in The Condition of the Working Class in England. He became acquainted with the Chartist struggle for suffrage and the militant strikes of the 1840s, and learnt from these movements.
But Engels was not just interested in documenting how workers lived, he also wanted to understand the economic processes of competition and exploitation at the heart of the capitalist system. When he was only 22, he produced his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy which addressed some of the themes of value and competition that Marx would look at in Capital. This influenced Marx’s own economic work.
Engels would also help in more practical ways. He eventually earned a wage that made him part of the comfortable upper middle class. He sent around half of this income to the Marx family in London, enabling Marx to keep a roof over his head while working on his writing.
Engels’s research and insider understanding of capitalist industry no doubt helped inform Marx. He even anonymously wrote several reviews of volume 1 of Capital for various publications to help promote it.
The pair argued about whether Marx should write a short version of Capital for a more general readership. Engels warned that someone would “come along and do it and botch it up” if Marx didn’t get around to it, Unfortunately, Marx never did.
Marx and Engels worked very closely together, exchanging around 2,500 letters over the years. After 1870, Engels retired from his job. He moved to Regents Park Road, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Marx household.
According to Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Engels visited every day and the two of them would often spend the afternoon pacing up and down, discussing their ideas and plans together, so much so that they started to bore a hole in the wooden floor.
Clearly, each admired the other’s work. Even so, some on the left have argued there were fundamental differences between the philosophies of Marx and Engels. In the 1960s it became quite widely accepted that Engels had a distorted interpretation of Marxism that implied that socialism was the inevitable outcome of the course of history and that he had little understanding of conscious human agency.
At this time the New Left were looking towards Marx’s ideas, but rightly wanted to distance themselves from the politics of Stalinism which they saw Engels as partly responsible for.
It is fair to say that Engels had a different writing style from Marx and different interests. It is also true that a determinist interpretation of some of Engels’s writings was adopted in the Soviet Union. However, Engels’s writings and his practice demonstrate his commitment to workers’ self-emancipation.
Marx and Engels jointly developed a historical materialist method. This is a view of historical change that starts by looking at how people acquire the things they need to survive and what this means for social relations between humans.
They argued that the forces of production (all the means humans have available in order to produce things) periodically come into conflict with the relations of production. One potential outcome of this is revolution. But they insisted this is not inevitable.
In the German Ideology they outlined their understanding of revolution as something that is led by the working class and which also changes them in the process, “revolution is necessary, therefore, not only 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”.
During his life Engels threw himself into attempts to put these ideas into practice. In the revolutions of 1848 he took part in the armed struggle to try to defend the revolution against Prussian forces. He played a central role in the International Working Men’s Association (First International) which involved some 25,000 trade unionists in Britain as well as bringing together socialist and anarchist groups from other parts of Europe.
Two centuries after his birth we should defend Engels from those who try to draw a distinction between him and Marx and remember the extraordinary legacy he has left for revolutionaries today.
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