Engels at 200: Intellectual giant and rebel

BY:Thomas Riggins| June 30, 2020
Engels at 200: Intellectual giant and rebel


Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s life-long friend and co-developer of what has become known as Marxism, scientific socialism, dialectical materialism, and in the twentieth century as a result of the Russian Revolution, Marxism-Leninism, was born two hundred years ago on November 28, 1820, in what is now Wuppertal, Germany (then Barman, Prussia). This article commemorates the bicentenary of Engels’ birth by pointing out some of his most important contributions to the development of Marxist theory.

Marx and Engels first met in 1842 in Cologne. Engels was 22 and had been active as a student in the democratic and progressive movements in Prussia and was on his way to England to join in the management of a factory partially owned by his father. His father, a conservative bourgeois, had taken Engels out of his university studies because he disapproved of his involvement in radical student movements opposed to the undemocratic Prussian monarchy. These movements were based based on the philosophical and political works of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), and the students were known as the “Young Hegelians.” Marx was the editor of a radical democratic newspaper (Rheinische Zeitung), and Engels wanted to meet him. Engels had already made a name for himself as a radical journalist while a student. After Marx hired him as a foreign correspondent, he continued on to Manchester where the factory was located. His father’s hope that he would settle down and become a respectable businessman was not going to be realized.

Engels spent two years in England, where he met with radical working-class leaders and wrote articles on current events and an important essay on political economy from a socialist point of view, as well as worked in his father’s factory. In 1844, on a trip back to Prussia, he stopped off in Paris to visit with Marx; the two had corresponded and wanted to meet up to compare their views on socialism. Marx was in Paris as a refugee, as the authorities in Cologne had expelled him for his political views. They spent ten days together and found out they had the same world outlook. They decided to collaborate and produce a joint work which put forth their views on socialism and philosophical materialism supporting the working class, as opposed to the Young Hegelians who based their views on philosophical idealism and were liberals opposed to communist and socialist views.

Engels continued on to Prussia. A year later, their collaboration resulted in the publication of the first of many works the two would produce in the creation of dialectical materialism—the philosophy of the working-class struggle for emancipation and the creation of socialism. The Holy Family; or, Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer and Company was not a full-fledged exposition of dialectical materialism, but it was a harbinger of things to come.

Engels stayed in Prussia from the fall of 1844 to the spring of 1845. While there he wrote his well-known The Condition of the Working Class in England. The book created quite a stir in Germany when it was published in 1845. Engels discussed the working-class movement in terms of materialism and the need for socialism. He also stressed the importance of workers’ organizations and especially unions and the use of strikes to win acceptance of their demands from the bourgeoisie. He was also active in the socialist movement, wrote articles for the socialist press, and, as might have been expected, became estranged from his conservative father.

Things were getting too hot in Prussia for Engels. With the authorities upset with his activities and the police spying on him, Engels worried about being arrested, so in the spring of 1845 he moved to Brussels. He chose Brussels because Marx was there, as he had to leave Paris for the same reasons. It was at this time that the pair worked out a full-fledged version of dialectical materialism. Engels had almost gotten there on his own, but Marx had worked out a more advanced view that Engels immediately recognized as such. Here they decided to collaborate on another book to iron out their ideas and solidify their new philosophy in contradistinction to both the objective idealism of Hegel and the materialism of Feuerbach (an influential student of Hegel whose materialist system inspired Marx and Engels but who was not dialectical in his thinking).

Their new book was finished by 1846 but never published in their lifetime. The German Ideology had been accepted for publication, but political and financial difficulties had arisen and the publication was shelved until after the Russian Revolution when it was published by the Soviets. It had served its purpose though; in writing it Marx and Engels had finally arrived at full agreement both politically and philosophically and were ready to devote their lives to the struggle for communism. They packed away the manuscript and, as Marx remarked, “left it to the gnawing criticism of the mice.”

Marx and Engels became involved in building socialist organizations in Brussels, and their writings were being spread in Germany and elsewhere through the socialist press. There were many different versions of “socialism” in the 1840s, but dialectical materialism began to slowly catch on to such an extent that in 1846 the Brussels followers of Marx and Engels sent Engels to Paris to make contact with the leading French groups and German exiles advocating socialism and democratic rights. So impressed were the leading French socialists that the editor of a major socialist paper, La reform, appointed Engels a correspondent. He also made contact with the leading group of German socialist exiles in Paris, The League of the Just.

In 1847 the League asked Marx and Engels to become members. The influence exerted by their ideas soon came to dominate the thinking of most League members, and in June Engels went to London to attend the League’s First Congress. By the end of the congress the League had renamed itself the Communist League, and a new slogan, “Workers of the World, Unite,” was adopted, superseding the bourgeois liberal (and male chauvinist, pace Schiller and Beethoven) “All Men Are Brothers.” Brussels became the center for the Communist League and its internationally circulated newspaper Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung, with Marx and Engels writing the articles on theory.

In the fall of 1847 Engels went to Paris to help the Communist League and prepare for its Second Congress. He reworked the draft program the League has drawn up, named it the “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” and sent it to Marx to look over. The Second Congress (December 1847) adopted dialectical materialism as its policy, and Marx and Engels collaborated on getting the Manifesto ready for the press. It was published in February 1848, and the international communist movement was launched.

The publication coincided with the 1848 February Revolution in France. Revolutions broke out all over Europe that year as the revolutionary bourgeoisie consolidated its political and economic power at the expense of the remnants of the old feudalist order. In France, Louis Philippe, the last of the French kings, was forced to abdicate, and the Second Republic was proclaimed. The revolution spread to Germany and southern and eastern Europe. Engels joined Marx in Cologne to work at the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the Germany daily newspaper published by Marx.

In 1849 Engels participated in revolutionary fighting in the Rhine Province, and when the revolutionaries were defeated he escaped to Switzerland. From there he made his way to London and helped reorganize the Communist League. In 1850 he wrote another of his important historical works, The Peasant War in Germany.

Without Engels, Marx would have been “unable to complete” Das Kapital.

The year 1850 also saw Engels’ return to Manchester and his father’s factory. Marx was now living in London, and the two were in constant communication. With the revolution having been defeated, they now engaged in research and the elaboration of their theories. Because Engels was running his father’s factory, he was able to help Marx financially; this allowed Marx the time he needed to write Das Kapital, one of two most important books published in the 19th century (it came out in 1867, the other was Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859). Lenin said that without Engels’ aid Marx would have been “unable to complete” Das Kapital. As it was, Marx only lived to complete volume 1, and Engels, with Marx’s drafts and notes, completed volumes 2 and 3 and saw them through to print.

Throughout the 1850s Marx, and especially Engels, concentrated on elaborating the practical aspects of dialectical materialism regarding the struggles of the working class to create unions and in the various national liberation movements that existed at that time, such as in Ireland, Poland, Hungary, the Balkans, and India, including the anti-slavery movement in the U.S.

In 1864 Marx and Engels were instrumental in the founding of the First International. Throughout its existence Engels was a major contributor to the International’s positions on war, colonization, the U.S. Civil War, and the fight against the anarchist movements, which opposed the views of Marx and Engels and the Communist League, under the influence of Mikhail Bakunin (whose views are kept alive and well in the 21st century by anarchists representing the views of the petty bourgeois radicals and not the working class).

In 1872 or 1873 Engels began another important book, Dialectics of Nature, which he worked on intermittently for ten years but never finished. After Engels’ death Edward Bernstein showed the manuscript to Albert Einstein, who thought it worth publishing even though the physics and mathematical parts were weak and out of date. It was published, finally, by the Soviet Union in 1925 (the Marx-Engels Institute). It has limited value, since the sciences have made qualitatively giant strides from the mid-19th century, but it shows how Engels used dialectical materialism to interpret scientific advances dialectically. It also has many interesting sections in which Engels put forth the rudiments of ideas that were later to become part of our contemporary scientific understanding of the world (especially in his discussion of human evolution and some aspects of modern physics, although in antiquated terms no longer in use).

One of the reasons his book on nature was never completed was that he was busy on other  important projects in the 1870s, such as following the developments and advising the growing socialist parties in France, Germany, England, and other countries while also writing important theoretical works: The Housing Question, On Authority, and The Bakuninists at Work (all in 1873), as well as one of the most important works in all Marxist literature, Anti-Dühring (1878).

Anti-Dühring covered the whole gamut of dialectical materialism, and three chapters on the history of socialism were so popular that Engels was asked to issue them as a separate work. He reworked these chapters and in 1880 published them in the work we know as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

The great collaboration of Marx and Engels came to an end on March 14, 1883, when Marx died at age 65, leaving Engels alone as the de facto intellectual leader of the world socialist movement. Marx left behind a trove of unfinished works which it was left for Engels to edit and see published. Engels had, as well, two more major works of his own to complete in the eleven years left to him.

Lenin considered Engels’ Origin of the Family to be “one of the fundamental works of modern socialism.”

Engels managed to get volume 2 of Das Kapital properly arranged and edited, and it was published in 1885, followed by volume 3 in 1894. He put so much work into these volumes that Lenin said they should be seen as joint works of Marx and Engels. At the same time he was editing Marx’s manuscripts and turning pages of notes and hastily jotted-down ideas into readable texts, he managed to write two works of his own that have become Marxist classics. In 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State came out (“one of the fundamental works of modern socialism”—Lenin). His final major work, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, was published in 1886.

It was in this period that Engels advised the Marxist parties to avoid sectarianism and dogma and to work to develop mass working-class parties. He also gave the classical definition of “opportunism” (still a big problem)—“letting the great basic considerations be consigned to oblivion by transient daily interests,” in other words, “sacrificing the future of the movement to the present.”

This period also saw the founding of the Second International (1889) in Paris in which Engels played a leading role. The First International (International Workingmen’s Association) had been basically set up by Marx and Engels in 1864 and was dissolved in 1876 to prevent its being taken over by the anarchist followers of Bakunin (who died that year in Bern). This international, which excluded the anarchists, lasted to 1916 when it fell apart because most of its national units, pledged to resist war, ended up supporting their own nations in World War I. It was succeeded by the Third International (1919–1943).

Engels, who in these years maintained his position as the most influential leader of the world socialist movement, began to have health problems in the 1890s and died of laryngeal cancer on August 5, 1895. A short time before his death, a young Russian revolutionary, V. I. Ulyanov, made a trip to London, hoping to meet with Engels but was turned away because Engels was too ill to meet with anyone. After his death his daughter Eleanor Aveling and two close friends, Friedrich Lessner and Eduard Bernstein, carried out his last request to be cremated and his ashes scattered in the ocean off Beachy Head, near Eastbourne in East Sussex on the south coast of England.

Cover image: Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla, Creative Commons (public domain).


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