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Engels in his twenties

Engels in his twenties. Photo: Public Domain

The life long comrade of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels made a huge contribution to socialist ideas and to revolutionary activity. Lindsey German looks at his legacy

It is a central tenet of revolutionary socialism that there can be no theory without practice – meaning that ideas are developed and formed through engagement with the real movement of working-class people. Socialist theory is itself the condensed experience of past struggles.

Friedrich Engels, who was born 200 years ago this week, was perhaps the greatest example of the combination of theory and practice. He was a fine theoretician who developed, with his lifelong friend and comrade Karl Marx, many of the central ideas of historical materialism or Marxism. He also was an active participant in revolution, a great supporter of working class strikes and campaigns, a keen advocate of Irish independence, and actively involved after Marx’s death in the building of socialist parties across Europe.

Engels spent his whole life engaged in political activity. He was committed to the idea of working-class revolution because he saw the workers as the only class with that potential. One of his formative experiences was when, sent to Manchester to work for the family firm, he witnessed the aftermath of the Lancashire general strike of 1842, and the power of the Chartist movement more generally. He was 22, and only three years later produced his great book The Condition of the Working Class in England. It is quite a remarkable work which combines a huge amount of data about the housing, living conditions, diet, and sorts of work engaged in, with an analysis of how this situation arises from the system of capitalism itself.

His great admiration for this first working class is present in his dedication at the beginning of the book ‘To the working classes of Great Britain’ where he says:

‘I wanted more than a mere abstract knowledge of my subject, I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. I have done so: I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port-wine and champaign of the middle-classes, and devoted my leisure hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working Men; I am both glad and proud of having done so’.

This lived experience of the working class in Britain was crucial to the formation of Engels’ thought, as was his friendship with leading Chartists such as George Julian Harney and the socialist philanthropist Robert Owen. In turn he influenced Marx on this question.

Engels’ direct experience of revolution came in his native Germany in 1848 where he and Marx based themselves in Cologne. The revolutions which swept Europe in that year are usually described as bourgeois revolutions by socialists: their aim was to sweep away the vestiges of feudalism and autocracy which dominated across the continent and to establish democratic structures, freedom of expression and what we would call civil rights.

They were supported by the emerging bourgeoisie or owners of capital, who wanted to be freed from the fetters of the petty autocratic states in which they found themselves in order to accumulate capital more easily, but also by students, lawyers, some peasants and the embryonic working classes. A very important component of many of these revolutions – for example in Hungary - was for national liberation and they were the first attempts at unification Italy and Germany.

The revolutions failed eventually – the bourgeoisie was too cowardly to really fight the old order, and instead often made its peace. A major reason for this, in contrast to the actions of its predecessors in the English and French revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries, was that the new ruling class feared the growing working class more than it feared the old order. It was therefore prepared to see its own interests curtailed or compromised rather than see a further socialist revolution which would destroy its property.

Marx and Engels described themselves as on ‘the extreme left of the democracy movement’. They tried to push the revolution as far as it would go and bemoaned the failings of the German bourgeoisie to fulfil its revolutionary tasks. As the defeat became more apparent, they began to talk about a ‘revolution in permanence’- that the fight would increasingly have to be for a socialist revolution in order to achieve democratic as well as economic change.

The failure of the wave of European revolutions by 1849 affected the men personally – both were forced to live in exile in Britain, Marx in London and Engels for many years in Manchester before moving to London for the last years of his and Marx’s life. It also changed the terrain on which they were able to organise, however. Firstly, the prospect of a mass working class or socialist party receded after the defeats of 1848, and this relegated the communists and socialists to small groups. Secondly, by the 1860s the focus of revolutionary and radical change took the form of national liberation or democratic movements – in Poland, Ireland, in the US during the civil war, in Italy for unification.

Engels showed great enthusiasm for these contests and regarded them as movements which if successful would have a huge impact on achieving democracy and overthrowing feudalism everywhere. While they were obviously far from being socialist revolutions, they would usher in new and more democratic social structures, open up societies to more liberal ideas, and also create the conditions for the growth of an industrial working class, whose collective organisation would be key to fighting for such a socialist transformation.

Both Marx and Engels regarded the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 and the civil war in the US (1861-65) which was about the future of slavery there, as the result of existing pressures of capital accumulation on these systems. They also believed ending feudalism and chattel slavery would open these countries up for further capital expansion, while at the same time lighting the spark of democracy in the old absolutist empires of Europe.

The failure of the 1848 revolutions did not stop the advance of capitalist development in Europe but rather meant it came about in a different way – unification of the tiny statelets of Germany was brought about from above by Bismarck and the Prussian monarchy, not by revolution from below. In Italy, the same process took place under the auspices of the crown of Piedmont, the area most heavily industrialised and most representative of modern capital.   

For many years it was impossible for socialists to build mass organisation, but when it was possible Engels threw himself into the task – central to the formation of what became known as the First International in 1864, which was an attempt to begin to organise a very broadly conceived left and trade union movement across borders. The movement continued until the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871, where Marx’s famous defence of the Parisian masses’ attempt at the first workers’ state led to a split.

In the later years of his life, Engels saw the prospects of mass socialist parties again being built – in his native Germany but also internationally and he helped establish the Second Socialist International in 1889. His assessment of the revival of the British workers’ movement following the New Unions upsurge in the late 1880s led him to understand the need for a party of labour in Britain, and he was involved in the establishment of the ILP in the years before his death.

Throughout his life Engels wrote on a wide range of issues from journalism about international events to major works on science and philosophy. His Principles of Communism was the ‘first draft’ for The Communist Manifesto, the famous exposition of the ideas of Marx and Engels. The many volumes of their collected works contain some of Engels’ unique contributions, especially Socialism: Utopian and Scientific which is a short and very readable defence of the theory of historical materialism in the face of revisions and misinterpretations, and his famous work on women’s oppression The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels said that he was proud to play second fiddle to Marx, whom he regarded as a genius. He did so at some considerable cost personally, working at the firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester in order to keep himself and the Marx family while Marx wrote Capital. He had two long term relationships, with Mary Burns and then after her sudden death with Mary’s sister Lizzie, whom he married on her deathbed. From them he learnt about the Irish working class and about the great Irish national liberation movement of the Fenians.

When Marx died in 1883 Engels said at his grave that he ‘was, above all else, a revolutionary’. It was true of both men. His guiding principles were the self-activity and self-emancipation of the working class, and the fight for socialism. He understood that this might take very different forms at different times. He also saw the defence of democratic and national rights as a means of challenging the old structures of feudalism and absolutism. His active engagement with all these movements demonstrated his lifelong commitment to revolutionary change, and his awareness of the impact particular struggles could have on the wider movement was profound. We have a huge amount to learn from his ideas, his activity and his revolutionary spirit today.

Lindsey German will be speaking at What Engels Means Today, at 7pm on Wednesday 25 November. Register here.

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Lindsey German

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’.