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Engels: The Man and His Work - Part Two

(The second and concluding part of a tribute to Marx's co-worker)

The writings of Friedrich Engels are indispensable for the study of the growth and development of Scientific Socialism. His writings derive their importance from the fact that even when they were not produced jointly with Marx (as was the case with the Communist Manifesto), they were (until Marx’s death) produced in collaboration with Marx in the sense that the whole plan was discussed by them jointly before the works of either were written The result in each case was submitted for the critical revision of the other.

Engels capacity to explain in a popular manner the ideas and theories of Marx have probably never been excelled. The proof is to be found in the worldwide circulation of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. Originally this consisted of portions of certain chapters in his polemic against Eugen Dühring. At the request (or suggestion) of Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, a separate pamphlet was made out of these sections, which, with Engels’ approval he translated into French and issued in 1880. Translations into other languages and re-prints in the original German text were followed in 1892 by an English translation for which Engels wrote an Introduction which is probably one of his best essays. It has been translated and undergone re-prints in many languages. In 1892 Engels commented upon its great popularity. It remains to this day the best approach to the study of Marxism.

Engels qualities as a writer were shown no less well in his Ludwig Feuerbach. In this essay he shows the connection between the Marxian world-outlook and that of German classical philosophy which came to an end with Feuerbach. Engels skilfully compresses the most profound implications of the Marxian world-outlook into terms that are clear and at the same time carefully guarded against any possibility of over-statement.

In one sense, the essay on Ludwig Feuerbach is a summary of the main theme of Engels’ longest work, his Anti-Dühring. The two works differ in tone and temper; the larger work is a point by point argument against a pretentious, badly-built theory of Socialism while the shorter essay is a straight-forward exposition of the historical origin of the Marxian world-outlook. But while the essay gives that outlook in a summarised form, the Anti-Dühring reaches it in a succession of arguments in which the proposition of Dühring is fully exposed and finally the whole field of philosophical thinking is established for the Marxian view of historical materialism and of revolutionary class-struggle.

The most specialised work of Engels can be placed under three heads:— (a) Military studies, (b) Historical and Political Essays, (c) the completion of Marx’s Capital. Of the works in the first category we need not here concern ourselves.

Engels’s Historical and Political Studies form the largest single section of his writing. For convenience of characterisation they may be sub-classified as (a) the group dealing with the German Revolution, (b) social theory group, and (c) the group dealing with the English working class struggle.

In the first category is his The Peasant War In Germany (one of his neglected writings and now almost forgotten) dealing with events of the early 16th century. Engels traces the historical causation which led to the outbreak in 1515, from which he draws the moral expressed by Marx as “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”, The Peasant War is valuable for its handling of the historical causes of the alliance between peasantry and the working class. During 1851 and 1852 Engels also wrote a series of articles under Marx’s name on the events of 1848 in Germany for The New York Daily Tribune. These were later published as a book, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Germany and still erroneously attributed to Marx.

The social theory group consists of one polemic volume The Housing Question, a study of The Origin the Family, Private Property and the State and an essay The Mark dealing with the form in which tribal communal land ownership, all necessitating a consideration of the nature of the State.

The Origin of the Family deals, in method, with the sociological discoveries of Lewis Henry Morgan, who was the first to prove that human society had undergone a process of historical transformation before even the most ancient of historical records began. At the time when Engels wrote, the notion of a ‘history before history begins’ had barely been discussed. Today the amount of literature on anthropology and related subjects is so vast that the significance of Engels’s work tends to be overlooked. Engels did what modern writers are careful to avoid; he drew a moral from the lessons of the past. Just as Man existed for great lengths of time without developing the idea of such thing as a frontier, so it was possible to envisage a future in which frontiers had disappeared and mankind had become united into a co-operating whole. So with private property; as this, too, was an institution which had evolved by degrees, so it was possible to conceive it passing out of existence and giving place to a form of common ownership on a higher plane. So with the family. As this had its history in the past, it could not he doubted that its future form would change. On all counts the “necessary conditions” of human society — the State with its frontiers, property and the family — which were often regarded as sacred and fixed, were shown to be transitory products of social development and not its immutable causes.

Engels not only draws these Socialist conclusions from his subject matter in a general form; he draws them concretely in his analysis of the State, expounded Anti-Dühring as well as the Origin.

This he shows to be likewise a transitory phenomenon and the product of class divisions based upon property differentiation. He concludes here, that the working class will constitute itself a State force as the capitalists did before them, but under radically different conditions. Since the essence of the State is to coerce and since, further, the essential object of the working class struggle is to abolish class differences, the working class organised as a State, and using its State force, will eliminate all class divisions and must in the end achieve a result in which the State has ceased to be a State at all. So far as the working class eliminates all privileges based upon private property in the means of production and makes the means of production the common property of society, it converts all members of society into workers who are also collective owners. But in doing so, the working class will have abolished distinctly its own working class status. Its own class character will have disappeared with the disappearance of the property relations and the privileges by reference to which it was a class. Its State will therefore cease to be a State since there no longer exists any subjects over whom it can exercise coercion. “The function of the organisation of society will change”, Government over persons will be replaced by administration over things”, the State will die out.

It is extremely difficult to place Engels’s works in any precise order of merit and having in mind the undoubted pre-eminence of the Anti-Dühring, it can be said categorically that Origin of the Family is very necessary for a proper grasp of the ideas expressed by Marx.

The essay, The Mark, is in one sense a foot-note to the Origin. It is useful, however, as showing Engels’ grasp of the various changes and exchanges possible in the ownership of land during its transformation from primitive forms of common ownership to private ownership.

The ‘English’ sub-group contains two works. Engels’ first work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, and a later work, a series of articles which appeared in the Labour Standard in 1881 (since re-published under the title of The British Labour Movement.)

In the decade after the Paris Commune of 1871 the independent labour press had practically disappeared but the London Trades Council produced their paper the Labour Standard. Its editor, George Shipton, invited Engels to contribute a series of articles. From May to August Engels wrote ten articles, in which by means of current events he demonstrated that old style trade unionism whose objectives were summed up in the slogan “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” was absurd. It is in the article “Trade Union of May 28, 1881, that he stresses the need for a movement for the “Abolition of the wages system altogether”. Simply worded, quietly and carefully reasoned, these articles are as readable today and as rewarding as when they were written.

These articles, along with the Condition bear testimony to the fact which a perusal of the Marx-Engels correspondence will verify, that Engels’s association with the working class in Britain continued from the time of his contribution to Owen’s New Moral World and O’Connor’s Northern Star down to the date of his death. To the last, he showed pleasure at the memory of the Chartists’ struggle and he never lost his conviction that the British working class would sooner or later find its place in the forefront of the world revolutionary movement of the working class.

The final group of Engels’s writings consists in his completion of volumes II and III of Capital. It was characteristic of him, that with the death of Marx, he should undertake as a matter of course, the completion of the immense work which illness had compelled Marx to leave unfinished. Engels realised and understood that the full importance of Marx’s analysis of the laws which underlie capitalist society could not be appreciated from the first volume alone. Volume I looks at the process of capitalist production only in a general and abstract form. The work of Volumes II and III is to carry forward the analysis to a study of the concrete process which links together production, circulation and consumption. It is these later studies that show the contradiction of capitalist society as a developing whole. In order that Marx’s scientific discovery (The Law of motion of capitalist society) should be presented to the world complete, Engels, at sixty five years of age undertook a task whose immensity can be appreciated by all who have studied the result and compared it with what had been done before in the field of economics.

In connection with his completion of Capital must be considered the number of prefaces written by Engels to new editions of his own works and those of Marx. During the later years of his life, he congratulated himself upon the fact “That there is but a limited number of languages that he could be called upon to assist translators” (Preface to Volume III of Capital). Added to this mass of work of a uniformly high quality must be the enormous amount of correspondence. Nothing Engels wrote ever failed to be interesting and informative. Without the work of Engels, the theories of Marx would be much less known than most people realise. Marx and Engels both stressed the importance of correct theory arising out of historical development as a preliminary to any revolutionary activity. A last quote from Engels’s 1880 preface to The Communist Manifesto is a fitting end to a tribute of this character:

    "The proletariat cannot obtain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class — the bourgeoisie — without at the same time, and once and for all emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class-distinction and class struggles."

Bob Ambridge