1990s >> 1995 >> no-1092-august-1995

Frederick Engels: A Lifetime’s Service

1995 is the Centenary of the death of Karl Marx’s friend and collaborator Frederick Engels, and Engels spent his entire adult life working for socialism. A prolific and popular writer as well as indefatigable activist and theorist, his name is justly coupled with that of his life-long friend as the originator of scientific socialism.

Engels became a Socialist (or Communist in the language of the time) earlier than Marx, in October 1842—at the age of 22—after a meeting with Moses Hess. Hess, Engels wrote a year later, was the first of the “Young Hegelians” to embrace socialist ideas, so founding a school of German “philosophical communism”.

The Young Hegelians were a group of intellectuals who gave Hegel’s philosophical views a radical twist and used them to criticise the then existing political and social order. Engels associated with them when he was in Berlin doing his military service in 1841-2.

Hegel (who had died in 1831) was a conservative who supported both Protestant Christianity and the Prussian monarchy, but as he saw the history of humanity as a progression through stages towards the goal of a free and rational society it is easy to see how his philosophical views could be given a radical interpretation, He himself saw “the end of history”, or the goal towards which society had been moving throughout history, as being the Protestant monarchy; the Young Hegelians saw this as a democratic and non-religious state; Moses Hess saw it as a society of equality and common ownership, a view to which Engels, as stated, adhered in 1842 and which Marx came over to towards the end of 1843.

Owenite Socialism

Soon after becoming a Communist Engels went to live and work in England, in the office of the Manchester branch of the cotton-spinning firm, Ermen & Engels, in which his father was a partner. Here he encountered another group which advocated common ownership, but which had reached this conclusion by a quite different route: the Owenites or, as they called themselves, the Socialists (they in fact invented the word).

Robert Owen, who could justly be called the father of modem, or industrial era, socialism, had developed a materialist theory of human behaviour and argued that marriage, religion and private prop­erty “together form the great trinity of causes of crime and immorality among mankind”.

The Owenites were essentially a propaganda group carrying on agitation against this trinity. They repudiated state and church sponsored marriage for life and advocated divorce, birth control and worn en’s liberation. They attacked the bible and Christianity as untrue (some from an atheist point of view, but others advocated a new “religion of humanity. They denounced private property and competitive individualism and advocated a “rational system of society” where there would be common ownership and distribution according to needs without money or buying and selling. Insofar as they did more than propagate these ideas they attempted to set up settlements in both Britain and America on communist lines.

At this time—the early 1840s—the Owenite Socialists were the strongest they were ever to be. Their national association had tens of thousands of members they were able to open meeting places up and down the country, like the Hall of Science in Manchester. They also ran a weekly paper called the ‘New Moral World’ as well as publishing numerous tracts and pamphlets. Engels attended the Sunday lectures at the Manchester Hall of Science and was clearly impressed both by the hundreds of people attending but also by the quality of the lectures and discussions. There can be no doubt that, after becoming a philosophical communist under the influence of Hess, Engels learned much of the rest of his socialist ideas from the Owenites.

One obvious example is his views on marriage and women’s liberation. Not only did he not believe in marriage but he did not practise it either. He and Mary Burns lived together as partners for 18 years until her death in 1863. Afterwards he and Lizzie Burns lived together as “Mr and Mrs Engels” till her death in 1878. In neither case were these relationships sanctified by the church or state (though Engels and Lizzie Burns did go through a formal marriage ceremony on her death-bed as her last wish). Marx’s wife was so shocked by this flouting of bourgeois convention that she always refused to meet Mary Burns.

Engels’s book on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, shows an evident sympathy for the plight of women as an oppressed group, as when he describes the ending of descent through the female line and the coming of the father-dominated patriarchal family as “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”, a wrong which he argued would be undone through the (re-)establishment of common ownership in place of private property. The Owenites of the 1840s would have appreciated both the book and the sentiment.

Engels contributed articles to the New Moral World from November 1843 to May 1845. He returned to Germany in August 1844 where he remained in his father’s house in his home town of Barmen (near Düsseldorf in the Rhineland). Here he joined with Hess in carrying out a campaign in the area of basic socialist propaganda, i.e. straight arguments for a communist society without private property, competition, buying and selling or money. It was here too that he wrote his first book The Condition of the Working Class in England based on information he had gathered while working in Manchester and associating with the Owenites, Chartists and trade unionists of the North of England.

Agitation for Socialism

In February 1845 he and Hess spoke at a series of meetings in Elberfeld. At the first of these Engels began by denouncing existing society in these terms:

    “In our present-day society, each man works on his own, each strives for his own enrichment and is not in the least concerned with what the rest are doing; rational organisation, or distribution of jobs, is out of the question; on the contrary, each seeks to get the better of the other, seeks to exploit any favourable opportunity for his own private advantage and has neither time nor inclination to think about the fact that, at bottom, his own interests coincide with those of all other people. The individual capitalist is involved in struggle with all the other capitalists; the individual worker with all the other workers; all capitalists fight against the workers just as the mass of workers in their turn have, of necessity, to fight against the mass of capitalists. In this war of all against all, in this general confusion and mutual exploitation, the essence of present-day bourgeois society is to be found. But, gentlemen, such an unregulated economic system must, in the long run, lead to the most disastrous results for society . . .” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vo1.4, p. 243).

Among these “disastrous results” were commercial crises. These would be impossible in a communist society:

    “In communist society, where the interests of individuals are not opposed to one another but, on the contrary, are united, competition is eliminated. As is self-evident, there can no longer be any question of the ruin of particular classes, nor of the very existence of classes such as the rich and the poor nowadays. As soon as private gain, the aim of the individual to enrich himself on his own, disappears from the production and distribution of the goods necessary to life, trade crises will also disappear of themselves. In communist society it will be easy to be informed about both production and consumption. Since we know how much, on the average, a person needs, it is easy to calculate how much is needed by a given number of individuals, and since production is no longer in the hands of private producers but in those of the community and its administrative bodies, it is a trifling matter to regulate production according to needs. Thus we see how the main evils of the present social situation disappear under communist organisation.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, p.246).

Because he was arguing directly for Socialism Engels had to face the same objections as Socialists do today, in particular “it’ s a nice idea, but it would never work”. Engels chose to counter this by saying that “community of goods” and voluntary work had been tried and were working in various communistic colonies set up by the Shakers, the Rappites and others, to show that people could live in communist conditions. For his informa­tion he relied heavily on a series of articles by the Owenite John Finch which had appeared in the New Moral World between January and October 1844. Engels quoted Finch’s description of how the Rappite community at Economy functioned:

    “They live in families of from twenty to forty individuals, each of which has a separate house and domestic establishment. The family gets its supplies as much as it requires from the common stores. They have an abundance for all and they get as much as they wish without charge. When they need clothing, they apply to the head tailor, the head seamstress or shoemaker and are furnished with it made to their taste. Fresh meat and the other foods are divided among the families according to the number of individuals in each, and they have everything in abundance and plenitude.” (“Description of Recently Founded Communist Colonies Still in Exist­ence”, Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol.4, p.220).

Engels envisaged a communist society (as opposed to a communist colony or commune) functioning on this sort of principle too. But what would be the incentive to work? Who would do the dirty work? Engels had already answered this in the first article he wrote for the New Moral World in November 1843:

    “It was Fourier, who, for the first time, established the great axiom of social philosophy, that every individual having an inclination or predilection for some particular kind of work, the sum of all these inclinations of all individuals must be, upon the whole, an adequate power for providing for the wants of all. From this principle, it follows, that if every individual is left to his own inclination, to do and to leave what he pleases, the wants of all will be provided for, without the forcible means used by the present system of society. This assertion looks bold, and yet; after Fourier’s mode of establishing it, is quite unassailable, almost self-evident—the egg of Colombus. Fourier proves, that every one is born with an inclination for some kind of work, that absolute idleness is nonsense, a thing which never existed, and cannot exist: that the essence of the human mind is to be active itself and to bring the body into activity; and that, therefore, there is no necessity for making people active by force, as in the now existing state of society, but only to give their natural activity the right direction. He goes on proving the identity of labour and enjoyment, and shows the irrationality of the present social system, which separates them, making labour a toil, and placing enjoyment above the reach of the majority of the labourers; he shows further, how, under rational arrangements, labour may be made, what it is intended to be, an enjoyment, leaving every one to follow his own inclinations.” (‘Progress of Social Reform on the Continent’, Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, pp394-5).

Ahead of their time

Engels later revised his rather optimistic view of these communist-type settlements within capitalism. In 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, which he and Marx drafted, the section on “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism” refers to “small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure”, explaining this failure as being due to the fact that conditions weren’t yet ripe for the establishment of socialism: industry wasn’t developed enough nor was the working class.

This left the ideas the early Socialists expressed—ideas of common ownership, voluntary work, distribution according to need and no money and no buying and selling—hanging in the air, as it were, with no material or class basis. As a result they appeared as abstract propositions unrelated to practical reality, or “utopian” in that sense. The ideas themselves, however, remained perfectly valid as a description of the content of socialism, of the features of the society workers would have to establish to free themselves from the exploitation they suffered under capitalism.

Engels’s criticism of the Utopian Socialists was not of their ideas for a new society but of the fact that these were not connected to the working class movement as a means of realising them, and in fact could not have been at the time they were first put forward in the 1820s and 1830s. As he and Marx went on to say in the same section of the Communist Manifesto:

    “But these Socialist and Communist publications contain also a critical element. They attack every principle of existing society. Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class. The practical measures proposed in them—such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the State into a mere superintendence of production, all these proposals point solely to the disappearance of class antagonisms.”

Although Engels was never again to enter into such detail as to what a socialist society might be like as he did in 1843-5, he never departed from this view that the classless society the working class should strive for should be a society of common ownership, democratic control, production and distribution for needs, without buying and selling, money, wages or the coercive state.

Adam Buick

Engels – what to read . . .

‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

Classic description from a Socialist point of view of the conditions industrial capitalism imposed on the newly-formed working class in England in the 1840s. Written in 1845 when Engels was still only 24, it was based on his first-hand experience of living and working in Manchester at the branch of his father’s cotton business from 1842 to 1844.

‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’

The third part of a longer work Anti-Duhring published as a separate pamphlet in 1880. The most widely-distributed of all Engels’s writings and still the best introduction in the words of one of them to the social and political ideas of Marx and Engels.

‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’

Another Socialist classic, published in 1884, in which Engels traces the origin both of the state as a separate coercive institution standing over the rest of society and of the patriarchal family and the subjection of women to the coming of private ownership of land and other resources and the dissolution of the communistic  conditions in which humans originally lived. The re-establishment of common ownership, Engels argues, will lead to the disappearance of the state and to the restoration of equality between men and women.

‘The Housing Question’

Series of articles Engels wrote in 1872-3, published as a separate pamphlet in 1887, analysing typical attempts to deal with a social problem by means of reform measures within capitalism. Engels shows how such measures can never solve the problem; at best they can only relieve it temporarily, as any measure which permanently reduces the cost of living of the working class will exert a downward pressure on wage levels, so taking away with the one hand what the other had given.

‘Articles from the Labour Standard’

Series of articles in English for a London trade-union paper in 1881, aimed at persuading English trade-unionists that pure and simple trade-unionism was not enough and that workers should also organise politically with the aim if abolishing the whole system of having to work for an employer for a wage. Still sound advice today.

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