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Book Review: 'Frederick Engels - A Biography'

'Frederick Engels: A Biography', by Gustav Mayer (Pub. Chapman fir Hall. 15s. 323 pages)

Frederick Engels has so often been referred to as the co-worker of Marx that it is really surprising that Mayer’s book is the first biography. Though Engels collaborated with Marx from the days of their youth until Marx's death, he lived so much in the shadow of the dominant personality and the brilliant intellect of Marx that his real place in the partnership has been difficult to assess. Engels, like Marx, was not of working class parentage. His father was a prosperous mill-owner and Marx's father a lawyer. Engels was born at Barmen, one of Germany's earliest industrial towns. At the time of his youth, Germany, later than England and France, was in the throes of social and political conflicts, which were the result of incipient capitalism. He was highly sensitive to the intellectual controversies of the time. Strauss' "Life of Jesus" undermined his belief in Christianity, in which he had been well primed in his childhood. Before he was twenty he was writing poetry, debating Hegelian philosophy, and challenging the accepted ideas of leading philosophers and writers, in pamphlets and articles to the Press. The social and intellectual ferment of the time, and the miserable conditions of the workers in his father's factory, profoundly influenced him and prepared his mind for those definitely Socialist ideas which he evolved a few years later.

After leaving high school, Engels entered the army for one year as a volunteer. It was this brief period in the army that laid the foundation for the reputation he achieved later on as an expert in military warfare. He early described himself as a Communist, and took an active part in the risings in Germany, greatly shocking his respectable parents. He was coerced into a business career which he disliked intensely. When, however, he was offered a salaried position in a mill his father had purchased in Manchester in 1842, he accepted with enthusiasm, because of the opportunity it gave to study industrial conditions where they were more highly developed than in any other place in the world. Manchester was then the world’s industrial capital. On his way to England he visited the offices of the Rheinische Zeitung, and met Marx. The first meeting is said to have been cool and unfriendly. Marx wrote to Bruno Bauer that he wanted nothing to do with the "Atheist and Communist."

Once in Manchester, Engels studied industrial capitalism at first hand. He joined and became active in the Chartist movement, and became acquainted with most of its leaders. He read the literature which dealt seriously with the social questions of the time, and wrote for the Chartist newspapers and for the German Rheinische Zeitung, of which Marx was editor. Two essays he wrote at this time, and which drew attention, were one on Carlyle's "Past and Present" and a "Sketch for a Critique of Political Economy." In the latter work he dealt with financial crises and the accumulation of capital. In later years, Marx referred to the work as having "genius," and declared that "Engels had discovered the decisive objection to Ricardo's theory of ground rent." Engels was instrumental in putting Marx right on this question.

Engels’ writings while still a young man show that he understood the place of capitalism in social evolution, and that the historic mission of the working class was Socialism. A keen student and observer, he had formed these ideas before his collaboration with Marx, and had in some respects anticipated him. His book, “The Condition of the Working Class in 1844," written in 1844-5, the year that he commenced his life association with Marx, is evidence of this.

The year 1845 found both of them in Manchester (Marx at Engels' pressing invitation) studying at the Subscription Library rooms. Marx used the opportunity to read and take extracts from the works of Sir William Petty, Thomas Cooper the Chartist, T. P. Thompson, William Cobbett, and—most important of all—Thomas Tooke, whose "History of Prices" and sketch of the Corn Trade during the preceding two centuries, fascinated Marx. Engels had the opportunity of renewing his intimacy with Mary Burns, the Irish working girl, who introduced him to proletarian circles and enlarged his sympathy for the Irish workers in their sufferings.

The following years, until he returned to England in 1849, Engels took an active part with Marx in the political risings in Europe. During this period he wrote jointly with Marx several works, the most important' being the "Communist Manifesto." Each produced his own draft of this work with great care before the finished version was ultimately published. The style of writing in the published version, the powerful urgency of its message, is unmistakably the work of Marx. Apart from the difference in form, however, it contained nothing that had not appeared in the earlier writings of Engels (especially in "German Ideology,” which had not found a publisher). Marx, with Engels' permission, used material from this work to write his book on Proudhon.

Marx held a very high opinion of Engels' abilities. He is quoted by Mayer as having said of Engels: "He can work at any hour of the day or night, fed or fasting; he writes and composes with incomparable fluency." And many years later, in a conversation with Engels, he remarks: “You know that in the first place everything comes late with me; and secondly, that I always follow in your footsteps." If this estimation of Engels is a correct one, then it would seem that the more profound, if slower, mind of Marx was less inclined to hasty judgment and error. Engels’ optimism in the Chartist movement, and his view that succeeding industrial crises would result in a widespread acceptance of Socialist principles among the workers and would present the capitalists with insuperable difficulties in the world’s markets, were not justified by events. At one time he came very near giving his endorsement to the Fenian (Nationalist) movement in Ireland: Marx’s clear-sightedness, however, prevented his doing so. Marx was very critical of the movement and constantly warned Engels. His letter of November 28th, 1867, bore fruit, and, two days later, Engels gave evidence of complete agreement with Marx’s sceptical attitude. In fact, Engels went further than mere criticism, and denounced the Fenian leaders as asses, conspirators and exploiters (Letter of November 30th, 1867).

Engels' time was divided between his business interests and his studies and writings. He would gladly have forsaken the former for the latter, but was constrained by quite impersonal considerations. At first he was only his father’s salaried employee. When ultimately he became a partner he would not sell his interest in “the firm,” because the capital realised would not have been sufficient to provide an income for both himself and Marx. Marx’s poverty was painful to him, and he made great sacrifices to lighten its pressure. That nothing that could be prevented should interrupt Marx’s studies was, to Engels, of first importance.

Mayer repeats the statement that various articles formerly attributed to Marx were really written by Engels, but the position still appears to be by no means clear. Mayer says (p. 137) that Engels, between August, 1851, and October, 1852, “wrote a group of articles ‘Germany, Revolution and Counter Revolution' ”; and on page 142, “he wrote many of Marx’s articles on current affairs in the New York Tribune, and later, in the Breslau Neue Oder-Zeitung.”

Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, in her preface (written in 1896) to Revolution and Counter Revolution, says nothing of this. Indeed, she quotes Engels as saying of them that they were “excellent specimens of that marvellous gift of Marx . . .”— surely an odd thing to say if he wrote them himself. Riazanov, in his Marx and Engels (p. 105), describes Engels as having “performed the major task,” calls him “the author” of the articles, and says that they were written “on the basis of the articles which they had both been writing for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung . . ." Riazanov also states that “ one year later ” (i.e., in 1852) Marx had “gained sufficient mastery of the English language to be able to write his own articles.”

Perhaps the correspondence of Marx and Engels will enable this point to be cleared up, but so far the statements made about it are not satisfactory.

Perhaps the most surprising of Engels' many activities is the reputation he made as a military writer. He wrote articles on the Austro-Prussian War in the Manchester Guardian, which were quoted and plagiarised by newspapers all over the world. Engels was, however, hopelessly wrong in forecasting the defeat of Prussia. Anonymous writings of Engels in a pamphlet, Po and Rhein, and on the American Civil War, were attributed to famous military men. During the Franco-Prussian War he wrote sixty articles, entitled “ Notes of the War,” for the Pall Mall Gazette. These were described by observers as the most important articles on the war appearing at the time, and they were republished during the World War in book form.

In private life he was a good "mixer.” He “rode to the hounds” with the "gentry,” but lived in a working class district in Manchester, and enjoyed both. He formed a union (without legal ceremony) with Mary Burns, and after her death with her sister, Lizzie. He was devoted to them both. To make Lizzie Burns' last moments happy he married her on her death-bed. He had a healthy contempt for Bohemian habits and for the moral and physical sloth (mistaken for revolutionary attributes) of the émigrés among whom Marx lived in London.

It is perhaps idle to speculate on what Engels might have achieved had he been able to follow the studious life of research that Marx did. What he did achieve was amazing enough. Despite his business ties he managed to collaborate with Marx and supply him with enormous data for his economic writings, to write arduous theoretical works, and to contribute to the Press in all parts of the world enough matter to occupy the time of any one full-time journalist. He also acted as unpaid secretary in nearly a dozen languages, keeping in touch with working class organisations throughout the world.

After the death of Marx in 1883, he published the second and third volumes of Capital from the notes and papers left by Marx. Gustav Mayer describes Engels as one of the “most original thinkers of the 19th century.” That description is not exaggerated. Unquestionably, without Engels the history of Socialist thought would make quite different reading to-day. This book certainly reveals Engels in a role much less modest than he claimed for himself, as well as it reveals many weaknesses in the views of Marx and Engels on certain 19th century events.

At fifteen shillings, Mayer’s book is not likely to have a very large sale among workers who are interested, and it is to be hoped that the publishers will issue a cheaper edition.

In the next edition, may we hope that Engels’ relations with Samuel Moore, the Manchester barrister, tried and trusty friend of both Marx and Engels, will be explored more fully? Moore, whilst acting as Chief Justice of the Territory of the Niger Co., was actually translating part of Vol. Ill of Capital, which was not even published in German until 1894. This information is derived from an unpublished letter, dated January 4th, 1889, from Engels to Dr. Danielson.

Mayer does not seem to have made any effort to unearth the part played by Moore in the translation and publication of each of the volumes of Marx’s Capital.

Harry Waite