For much of the 20th century, the image and ideas of Friedrich Engels were eerily familiar as he stood alongside Marx, Lenin and Stalin (or Mao) in the official communist pantheon. Yet today even Marx impersonators have forgotten his name. You can still visit city of Engels in Russia, there are still statues of Engels in Moscow and Berlin, but his intellectual and political legacy has all but been extinguished.
And what makes such historical amnesia all the more regrettable is that in the midst of our current financial meltdown, Engels’s critique of capitalism should resonate with greater force then ever.
So who was Friedrich Engels? Certainly one of the 19th century’s most insightful and creative thinkers, but he was also a man of beguiling personal contradictions. For his upbringing offered no inklings of a revolutionary destiny: no broken home, no lost father, no lonely childhood. Instead, there were loving parents, indulgent grandparents, plentiful siblings, steady prosperity and a sense of structured, familial purpose.
Born in 1820, Engels was raised in a respectable bourgeois community set alongside the river Wupper in the Rhineland district of western Prussia (now Germany). Engels’s father, like his father before him, worked for the family firm of Caspar Engels und Söhne, a successful textile and bleachery business. But in his midteens, Engels rebelled against the narrow Protestantism and rampant capitalism which suffused his home town. And he did so in spectacular style with a series of newspaper articles castigating the industrial pollution which poured from the “smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching yards”. He traced the plight of factory workers “in low rooms where people breathe in more coal fumes and dust then oxygen”., and lamented a creation of “totally demoralized people, with no fixed abode or definite employment, who crawl out of their refuges, haystacks, stables at dawn”.
But his condemnation of the market economy was never that of a Puritan. Engels had no trouble with people being rich and happy; indeed, he himself had a rare love for life. As an apprentice, he drank profusely, revered Beethoven, took up fencing, and organized moustache growing competitions. During his military service in Berlin in 1840, the heavy drinking was again apparent as was Engels’s characteristic vanity. “I shall soon be promoted to bombardier”, he boasted to his sister Marie, “which is a sort of non-commisioned officer, and I shall get gold braid to wear on my facings”.
However, Friedrich Engels also underwent a remarkable intellectual development as his youthful outbursts against exploitative industrialists were replaced by a more coherent political philosophy. First he embraced the teachings of “Young Germany”, a radical band of republican patriots impatient with ancien régime Prussia and its reactionary monarhy; then he took to the philosophy of GWF Hegel and the “Young Hegelians” who challenged the political and religious conservatism of the day; until finally Friedrich Engels came under the sway of the “Communist rabbi”, Moses Hess.
It was Hess who helped Engels to realise that alleviating the condition of the Wuppertal workers demanded more then a political change: it necessitated a “social revolution based upon common property”. Hess recalled that Engels had arrived at their meeting a shy, naïve, “first year revolutionary”. He left “an extremely eager communist”.
To avoid further radicalisation of his son, the father dispatched Engels to Manchester to work in their new cotton thread business, Ermen & Engels. Among the beating looms and polluting smokestacks of Manchester was where the proleteriat was most exploited, the class divides greatest and the most promising conditions for communist revolution. Rather than training Engels up in the dull mysteries of commerce, Manchester gave Engels the essential human evidence to ballast his Berlin theorising.
Taken in hand of local Irish girl called Mary Burns, Engels explored the wretched underworld of Victorian Manchester just to find evidence of the coming class conflict, as set out in brilliant polemic, “The Condition of Working Class in England (1845)”. It is unfettered account of the depravity of the Manchester bourgeoisie and the horrors of industrialisation – “women made unfit for childbearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generation wrecked” – the book still has the power to shock. It remains one of the pioneering indictments of the brutality of capitalism, and Karl Marx was mesmerised.
And here is the rub: Engels was just as sophisticated a communist as Marx by the time two men joined forces over drinks in Paris’s Café de la Régence in 1844. His critique of capitalism, belief in the inevitability of revolution, and demands for an abolition of private property were wholly on accordance with Marx’s ideas. But at that meeting Engels made a crucial decision to take a backseat and allow Marx to assume the role of “first fiddle”. And there was never any bitterness about this personal sacrifice. From the beginning they worked as a team. It was Engels who provided the first two drafts of what became the “Communist Manifesto”. It was Engels who ran the street politics of the Communist League in Paris, Brussels and Cologne. And it was Engels who was on the barricades during the 1848-49 revolution.
However, Engels’s greatest sacrifice came in the aftermath of the failure of 1848. As conservative governments extinguished the last embers of revolution, Marx and Engels sought refuge in Britain. But neither man could support themselves as gentleman revolutionaries. The only solution was for Engels to slink back to Ermen & Engels while Marx set to work on his magnum opus, “Das Kapital”. Much against his will, the revolutionary communist was transformed into a frock-coated cotton lord.
The next 20 years proved a desperately frustrating time as Engels wrestled with his conscience and returned to “huckstering”. he sought some comfort in the arms first of Mary and then, on her death in 1863, her sister Lizzy Burns. He blended in with Manchester’s wealthy middle class, attending art galleries, joining respectable clubs, and taking up his partnership in Ermen & Engels. And he found excitement with the bloodthirsty antics of the Cheshire Hounds.
He did not gave up on communism. While Marx trashed out the economics of Marxism in “Das Kapital”, Engels developed new thinking on colonialism, history, even feminism. In 1870 Engels moved back to London to be at Marx’s side and the next quarter of a century saw Engels return to his metier: deepening, popularising and explaining the meaning of Marxism. He helped to establish the International Working Men’s Association (better known as the International) as well as socialist parties in Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Spain.
More than that, Friedrich Engels wrote a series of works – “Utopian and Scientific”, “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy” – which brought a new generation towards Marxist. In one sense, Engels did his job too well. Towards the end of the 19th century, his explanations of Marxism were reduced even further by narrow-minded acolytes into rigid orthodoxies. Unfortunately, it was just this kind of dogma which Lenin then Stalin seized upon to justify their brutal political programme. Countless millions would die in the name of this bastard new orthodoxy of Marxist-Leninism. Another victim was Marx and Engels’s historical reputation.
Today the work of Friedrich Engels offers not just an insightful critique of global capitalism, but new perspectives on the nature of modernity and progress; religion and ideology; colonialism and “liberal interventionism”; urban theory; even Darwinism and reproductive ethics. Far more than just Marx’s “buddy”, Engels was one of the most impressive and underrated philosophers, propagandists and activists of modern political history. Perhaps he now deserves his own impersonator.
Tristram Hunt, “The Frock-Coated Communists”, Penguin Books (Amazon)