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Engels: The Man and His Work - Part One

(The first of a two part tribute to Marx’s co-worker Friedrich Engels)

Seventy six years have passed since the death of Friedrich Engels, the friend and co-worker of Karl Marx. Much of the interest that has been shown over the years in the Socialist movement has tended to obscure the reputation of Engels by an exclusive pre-occupation with that of Marx — a process which Engels himself encouraged — so it seems more than fitting that we should pay tribute, in recognition of the debt present-day Socialists owe to Friedrich Engels.

Marx’s pre-eminence in their partnership was stressed by no one more emphatically than by Engels himself:

      "I cannot deny that both before and during my forty year’s collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundations of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all. their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name (F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx-Engels Selected Works Vol. II, Moscow, 1958)." 

This leaves little room for doubt in so far as it concerns Engel’s generous renunciation especially in the reference to “we others.’’ If we differ from it, as in fairness we must, it can only be in respect of the fact which Engels passes over as of no account: the fact that but for Friedrich Engels, there is every possibility that Karl Marx would have been relatively unknown.

We do not refer only, or even mainly, to the possibility that, without Engels’ aid, Marx would have probably starved to death or been driven insane by privation and disappointment in the years after the failure of the revolt of 1848-9 in Germany and the suppression of the paper (Neue Rheinische Zeitung) in which he had sunk what little money he possessed. This is important enough, but it can be negligible in comparison with the fact that the capability of Marx was fully developed made stronger and richer by his association with Engels and the stimulus of his companionship and talented collaboration. The same process also applies to Engels and his enrichment by his association with Marx. So that the net result is much as Engels expresses it in a letter to Franz Mehring (July, 14 1893):

       "If I find anything to object to it is that you give me more credit than I deserve, even if I count in everything which I might possibly have found out for myself — in time — but which Marx with his rapid coup d’oeil and wider vision discovered much more quickly. When one has the good fortune to work for forty years with a man like Marx, one does not usually get the recognition one thinks one deserves during his lifetime. Then, if the greater man dies, the lesser easily gets overrated and this seems to me to be just my case at present; history will set all this right in the end and by that time one will have quietly turned up one’s toes and not know anything any more about anything (Selected Works, Vol. II)."

Now that Engels has “turned up his toes” it is his due that while reserving to Marx that pre-eminence which belongs to him, we must also appreciate and value the work of Friedrich Engels.

The friendship of Marx and Engels began in 1844, after having met previously in the office of the Rheinische Zeitung of which journal Marx was the editor. Neither was, at this meeting, much drawn to the other.

Engels, the son of a cotton manufacturer and importer, was born in 1820 in the town of Barmen, now merged with Elberfield and four small towns to form Wuppertal in the province of North Rhine Westphalia. At the time he met Marx, he had just completed his year in the army as a lieutenant in the guard artillery, and although he was deeply interested in the philosophy and republican-democratic politics of that period, he appears to have been still a rather stiffs “officer of the Guards”. His background in a rigid Lutheran and commercial home was very different from that of Marx who had lived in an atmosphere of eighteenth century culture based on the Rabbinical tradition and legal studies of his father. Marx as a young editor had obtained his knowledge of classical German philosophy and democratic politics by a method opposite to that of Engels, although each was a man of intense feeling and wide sympathy, yet, at their first meeting they did not appear to. have had much in common.

Engels went to England to fill a clerical appointment at his father’s factory in Manchester where he found it necessary to take up the study of commerce. Marx, in his work as editor, found himself engaged in numerous conflicts with the authorities and the censorship. He found himself handicapped by a lack of knowledge of political economy and, what at the time, were new ideas about “Socialism” then prevalent in Paris and from there, spreading out into Germany.

When the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed in 1844, Marx made his way to Paris expressly to study these subjects. A friend, Arnold Ruge, invited Marx to collaborate with him in producing, from Paris, a review-magazine — the German/French Year book, which was to feature critical philosophical studies upon all the topics then current in Germany. A magazine of this type was impossible to produce in Germany due to the censorship of that period. The collaboration of Radical writers in France and Germany (Feuerbach, Bruno, and Edgar Bauer, Heine and Proudhon among them) were invited and in response to this appeal, an Article “Outlines of Political Economy” was received from Friedrich Engels in Manchester. This led to an invitation from Marx to Engels suggesting a visit to Paris.

Engels’ arrival in Manchester in 1842 coincided with the second upheaval of the Chartist Movement with the strikes and rioting which accompanied it. He was deeply interested in the aims of the Chartists, and through that movement came into contact with the ideas expressed by the supporters of Robert Owen, which ideas overlapped with the Chartist Movement. As a student of commerce, he was naturally brought into a study of classical political economy. It was his association with the Chartists, Owenites and others, which made him aware of the critical conclusions, drawn from that political economy by the other champions of working-class aspirations. These studies, carefully combined with his knowledge of classical German philosophy, resulted in two works. The first, a study of the working class in England in 1844 upon which he was at work when he was invited to contribute to the German/French Year Book. The second was the article he sent in response to that request.

Engels followed his article to Paris, where he and Marx for the next ten days compared notes and views. As a result, they found they had each independently reached the same conclusions; that the capitalist system was historically a transitory phenomenon and bound to give place to a new system, based upon the common ownership of the means of production and that it was the historical mission of the working class to bring the new form of society into being. The fact that each had reached this conclusion by a different method; Engels by the study of classic English philosophy (political), Marx by a study of the French Revolution and its outcome on French proletarian movements, made them complementary to each other. The friendship born out of these circumstances lasted for the remainder of their lives.

The immediate effect of their friendship was that they both commenced upon their life task; to get an understanding and acceptance by the working class of what they regarded as its historic role in society.

Each, in his own way, settled down to the work of propagating the ideas of scientific socialism as opposed to the Utopian ideas of that period. Engels wrote the opening instalment of the Holy Family which Marx completed and published Engels’ fine work The Condition of the Working Class in England was first issued in Germany in 1845. The following quotation is from the preface for the English Edition of 1892: “The author, at that time, was young, twenty four years of age, and his production bears the stamp of his youth with its good and its faulty features, neither of which he feels ashamed”.

This is a statement with which we must agree. There is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It is a classic, readable and rewarding; a splendid record of working class life as Engels saw it in 1844, together with its historical background. This was in opposition to the "respectable” and complacent view that saw the working class as the ‘mob’ the 'lower orders’ and sometimes as the ‘swinish multitude’. Engels formulated the proposition that this despised section of society contained the force prepared by historical development for the overthrow of capitalist society, and which would make possible and necessitate the establishment of Socialism.

The collaboration of Marx and Engels is best shown in the Communist Manifesto. So close was it, that in the final result it is hard to say which is Marx and which is Engels.

When Marx, driven from France, settled in London, Engels joined him and did his best to help Marx get a living by journalism whilst he, in order to get the money for their joint purpose, went to work in the factory owned by his father. Thereafter, for the rest of their lives they never lost contact.

How close their relationship was and how much Engels’ stimulus and encouragement helped in promoting the development of Marx can be seen by this extract from the Marx/Engels correspondence. Marx had completed years of work on his Capital and the first volume was ready for the printer. Marx writes to Engels:

          "London, 16 August, 1867 2 o'clock at night

    Dear Fred, . . . So this volume is finished. It was thanks to you alone that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks! (Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1956)." 

After 1869 Engels retired from commerce and in 1870 he came to live in London. The correspondence was now replaced by daily visits. He was also able to relieve Marx of the stresses of his early years by his kindly act of endowing him with a small annual income. It was fitting that it should be Engels himself who found that Marx had died peacefully in his chair and that to Engels should fall the task of making the speech over the grave at Highgate cemetery, March 17, 1883. It included the words: "On the fourteenth of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think . . ", "his name and his work will endure through the ages." (extract from Graveside Speech).

With the name and work of Marx which has endured must be coupled the name and work of Friedrich Engels. With the death of Marx, Engels, at the age of 65 undertook the monumental task of preparing from the notes left by Marx, Volumes two and three of Capital for publication, and spent the rest of his days, vindicating and popularising the work of his friend.

Of Engels’ personality, a word or two is appropriate. He appears to have been a genial person, fond of the open air and country walks, good eating and drinking. He differed from Marx insofar as he was more immediately likeable. But they were as one in their enthusiasm for their joint life's work. In all he did; in his studies and writings he gave all he could. To the Marx children he was an elder brother. When writing of a man like Engels, it is almost impossible not to use superlatives. He was a man in the best possible sense of the term.

In March 1895, he developed cancer in the throat. By August 1895, he was dead. At his own wish his body was cremated and the ashes thrown into the sea off Eastbourne.

(to be concluded)

Bob Ambridge