The Life, Work and Legacy of Friedrich Engels, eds. Eberhard Illner, Hans A Frambach and Norbert Koubek (Bloomsbury 2023), 360pp. The Life, Work and Legacy of Friedrich Engels, eds. Eberhard Illner, Hans A Frambach and Norbert Koubek (Bloomsbury 2023), 360pp.

The importance of the revolutionary writing of Engels is not given its due in a collection of essays on his life and work, argues Lindsey German

Friedrich Engels famously declared that he was happy to play second fiddle to his lifelong friend Karl Marx. He regarded Marx as a genius who, as he said at the latter’s funeral address, both ‘discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion’, and also ‘discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created.’

Yet by any serious standards, Engels himself was a major intellectual, author and political figure: he was a fine writer whose book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written when he was a very young man in the 1840s, remains an important and relevant study today, whose collaboration with Marx produced a great deal of theoretical and political writing, and who produced lifelong commentary on the political issues of the day from the US civil war to the rebirth of the British working-class movement in the 1880s. He spoke and/or read many languages, directly intervened in political debate both during and after Marx’s lifetime, and was a supporter of revolutionary movements wherever they occurred.

A revolutionary partnership

The early collaboration between the two men took place in the 1840s against a rising tide of revolution in Europe. The German-born Engels went to Manchester to work in his father’s firm in the aftermath of the great Chartist general strike of 1842 in Lancashire. There he discovered two things: the effects of the industrial revolution in the city which was known as Cottonopolis, because of the preponderance of cotton mills there; and the power of the working class based in those mills and other factories. Both helped shape his, and later Marx’s, politics.

When revolution broke out across Europe in 1848, he and Marx returned to their homeland, to Cologne, where they played an active part in the revolutionary movement there. The failure of those revolutions when they were still young men led to exile in Britain, the impasse of defeated exile politics, and then long years of the patient work of writing and explaining their politics. Engels moved to Manchester to work in the family firm for nearly twenty years, during which time he supported the Marx family while Karl wrote Capital. Both collaborated intellectually and in writing during this time, as their extensive correspondence attests, and both helped set up the First International in 1864. After Engels’ retirement, he moved back to London where the two men met every day and worked on issues as diverse as the defence of the Paris Commune and the origins of women’s oppression.

It’s worth spelling this out because the work of the two men was an unprecedented collaboration both in duration and political closeness. This makes it all the more remarkable that so much academic commentary on them is concerned to split them up, to relegate their work to youthful enthusiasm for revolution, which was later tempered by Marx, or to discover an epistemological break between the thinking of the young and the old Marx, or to see Engels as fatalistic, deterministic and mechanical in his thinking, which led to the distortion of ‘Marxism’ characteristic of the German SPD in the last years of the nineteenth century.

It is perhaps inevitable that this happens, given that they wrote prolifically, often in fragmentary forms, and they altered specific views according to the circumstances. Nonetheless, it has become common practice to see differences between the two men which tend to be unfavourable towards Engels, and to suggest much greater divisions in their thought than either they or the people closest to them in life were aware.

This collection is an attempt to look at Engels in his own right, not simply as an adjunct to Marx, its subheading entitled ‘Emerging from Marx’s Shadow’. The editors are German academics based in Engels’ home area of the Wuppertal, Germany’s own little ‘Cottonopolis’ at the time. The various essays cover a range of issues with a wide scope: we learn about Engels’ view of his own ‘immortal works’; his interest in the US; his great knowledge and study of military matters; his friendship with the Austro-Marxist Victor Adler; and working conditions in London and Manchester in Engels’ time. It also looks at his economic theories and his role in completing the last two volumes of Capital after Marx’s death.


There is much to learn about Engels here, and much with which to agree. But overall I found the collection unsatisfactory. I would argue that is for a combination of reasons. There are some contributions which I found lacking. The essay by Margrit Schulte Beerbuehl about the changing face of work in Manchester and London misinterprets Engels when he talks about women working during early capitalism as an ‘inversion of the existing social order which … has the most ruinous consequences’, as being in some way opposed to women working in factories. In fact, Engels was pointing to the awful social conditions that resulted under capitalism, and saw this ‘inversion’ as demonstrating that the original social order of women in the home wasn’t to be aspired to either. Beerbuehl also reads Engels’ description of the London slum of St Giles as demonstrating that the rich lived separately from the poor. But St Giles wasn’t in the East End, as Engels makes abundantly clear in The Condition, but only minutes away from some of the rich West End residences, around the present New Oxford Street.

Similarly, some assertions, for example in Werner Plumpe’s essay, are highly speculative: that Engels was a dilettante, or that Marx was ‘unfit for life’, so leaned on Engels. Elsewhere we are told with some disdain that he was a typical nineteenth-century bourgeois who was not above gambling on the stock exchange. These are remarkable criticisms from authors who seem fairly out of kilter with the actual politics of Marx and Engels. For it can be argued that one of the basic faults of the book is that it doesn’t have much sympathy with Marxism as a theory, nor with a method that saw history and ideas as a totality, not as a series of discrete and hedged-in studies which characterises bourgeois society, not least in its academic form. The authors more than once bemoan the fact that Engels had no degree, that he didn’t cite sources on economics or technology with whom he disagreed, and that he had the infuriating habit of claiming that the arguments put by the young Marx and Engels still held true four decades later.

In arguing this, neither Engels nor indeed Marx behaved or wrote as though change, both in terms of material conditions, or in terms of consciousness, hadn’t happened, or wasn’t important. Indeed Engels and Marx were both active political observers and commentators, they were possessed with issues such as the outcome of the US civil war, Engels followed very closely economic and industrial developments in countries such as Germany and the US, he was extremely interested in scientific discoveries, and they were active participants and initiators of the First International (and Engels in the Second International).

Their starting point in analysing all of these and many other aspects of society were the two major ‘discoveries’ to which Engels refers above, that of capitalism being based on exploitation – the extraction of surplus value from the working class – and of historical materialism as the key to understanding change. On the latter, they saw society’s productive forces developing and coming into conflict with the relations of production, which in turn led to the possibility of revolutionary change, as they had hoped in 1848. But they knew from their own experience in those events not least that this was not inevitable, but could end in defeat, sometimes meaning that society went backward, rather than advancing.

Continuity of revolutionary ideas

For socialists, it is important to adjust one’s strategy and tactics to the level of consciousness, organisation and combativity existing inside the working class, and also to take into account new developments. That’s why Marx wrote The Civil War in France in 1871 to analyse the defeat of the Paris Commune, which led him to the conclusion that the state could not be transformed peacefully. However, that analysis was based on an acceptance of their original premises, not an abandonment of them. Engels is criticised by Plumpe for clinging tenaciously to his old ideas because he writes in the 1880s that the mass of working people in Britain lived in as low a ‘state of misery and insecurity’ as ever. Yet these were the years marked by economic depression, unemployment on a mass scale, riots and huge strikes against this misery.

Marx and Engels’ theory that capitalism could deliver great wealth but only for a minority, and that it was prone to crisis and depression, has been proved right time and again. But this isn’t the authors’ conclusion. Instead they argue that Engels was wrong about the abolition of private property. According to Hans Frumbach, ‘Capitalism has not been revoked by socialism: it would be truer to say that it has developed into a success model with a social face’ (p.197). That simply does not chime with the reality of billions of people around the world.

But it does sum up the politics behind this critique of Engels. Actually existing socialism hasn’t worked – by which is meant the state-capitalist models of eastern Europe, which had nothing to do with the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels. Capitalism has not collapsed, therefore the Marxists were and are wrong. The book’s ideas would fit comfortably with the present ruling SPD government in Germany. But if you want to find out about Engels, I wouldn’t start from here.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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