Friedrich Engels Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: In partnership with Karl Marx, Engels analyzed the origins and nature of industrial capitalist society and worked to bring about the overthrow of that society by a working-class revolution.

Early Life

Friedrich Engels was born into the social class whose domination he later strove to overturn. His father, Friedrich, owned one of the principal cotton mills in the Wupper Valley, in the Rhineland territory that Prussia had taken over in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars. It was assumed that young Friedrich, the first of nine children, would enter the family business, and university education was considered unnecessary for a business career; Friedrich left grammar school in 1837 without taking the final examinations, having shown strong academic skills, particularly in languages. His literary inclinations, he believed, could be pursued without academic credentials; indeed, he became impressively self-educated.

By 1838, when he began a sort of businessman’s apprenticeship in the export business of a family friend in Bremen, Engels had already broken away from the strong Pietist fundamentalist Protestantism of his family and of Barmen. His letters also included sarcastic attacks on the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, calling him oppressive and stupid. His taste in philosophy favored D. F. Strauss and the Young Hegelians, in literature, Heinrich Heine and the Young German movement. Engels had defined himself as an alienated young man, but the newspaper articles that he wrote from Bremen were generally amusing, mocking rather than vehement in tone, though Engels did attack both capitalists and Pietists.

Engels returned to Barmen in 1841, and later that year went to Berlin to do his military service as a one-year volunteer in the Prussian artillery. His military duties, which he often avoided, were so undemanding that he was able to attend lectures at the university, associate with enthusiastic young radicals, and write copiously on political and philosophical issues. In October, 1842, his military service completed, he visited Cologne and the offices of the Rheinische Zeitung, whose editor, Moses Hess, claimed credit for converting Engels from generic revolutionary to communist.

From November, 1842, to August, 1844, Engels was in England, working in the Manchester branch of his father’s firm and preparing his vivid attack on industrial capitalism, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (1845; The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, 1887). In Paris, on the way home from England, Engels met Karl Marx, beginning a partnership that lasted till Marx’s death. The two had met, coolly, in November, 1842. Now Engels’ firsthand acquaintance with industrial society impressed Marx, who was beginning to interest himself in economic issues. The university-educated Marx, two years older than Engels, was profound, while Engels was quick; Marx mapped out huge projects that remained unfinished, and Engels responded to the needs of the moment. Together they attempted to change the world.

Life’s Work

Marx and Engels defined their differences from other socialists of the day in their first collaborative writings and joined in organizing various revolutionary groups in Brussels, Paris, and London. One of these, the Communist League, aspired to be an international organization of the revolutionary working class, under the slogan “Workers of the World, unite!” Engels drafted this group’s program and Marx revised it into Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850). Although this program of a weak organization had little effect in 1848, it combined philosophy and economic history into a powerful prophecy that the course of history would soon make it possible to eliminate class rule and inaugurate true human freedom. The successes of the Industrial Revolution, carried out by the middle classes, were creating the conditions for a workers’ revolution. Despite its dated denunciations of ephemeral leftist rivals, The Communist Manifesto remains the central expression of Marxism’s ideas and style.

Revolution broke out in Paris in February, 1848, followed by upheavals elsewhere. Liberalism and nationalism were the issues of the day, not communism. Engels and Marx devoted their efforts to the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne, which advocated the unification of Germany as a democratic republic, ignoring for the moment...

(The entire section is 1863 words.)

Friedrich Engels Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Friedrich Engels (EHNG-guhlz) was instrumental in the founding and development of the Communist movement. Brought up in a liberal upper-class milieu in Germany’s Prussian region, he dropped out of secondary school in accordance with his father’s plans to have him help run the family textile firm. From 1838 to 1841 Engels acquired practical business experience in the offices of an export company, while at the same time becoming involved with the nascent revolutionary organizations that sought to overturn Germany’s established governmental and social institutions. After a year of voluntary army service in Berlin, which initiated a lifelong interest in military matters and also led to closer ties with that city’s radical activists, Engels made the acquaintance of the communist theoretician Moses Hess in 1842. It was Hess who provided the intellectual foundation that marked the final stage in Engels’s conversion to communism, while also convincing him that Great Britain was the country most likely to experience a successful working-class revolution.

Thus Engels was delighted to accept his father’s suggestion that he familiarize himself with the operations of the English branch of the family firm, which were based in the industrial city of Manchester. Engels resided in Manchester from 1842 to 1844, where he once again led a double life as respectable businessman by day and revolutionary activist by night. There he met Mary Burns, an Irish factory worker with whom he lived, without benefit of clergy, until she passed away in 1863; Engels would later live with her sister Lizzy on similar terms. His relationships reflected his opposition to the institution of marriage. In 1844 he returned to Germany by way of Paris, where he renewed an acquaintanceship with Karl Marx and cemented the friendship that would eventually produce several classic works of communist literature.

Although Engels wrote several journalistic articles on political and historical topics between 1838 and 1845, it was only in the latter year that his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, appeared. This graphic portrait of how the Industrial Revolution had affected those who labored in its mills and factories was very influential in its day and is still considered one of the classic works of Victorian social criticism. In the same year, Engels and Marx collaborated on The German Ideology, a much more theoretical treatment of the history of German socialist thought that has come to be viewed as an important step in the development of their thinking.

From 1845 to 1848, Engels and Marx were intimately involved in...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

Friedrich Engels Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Carver, Terrell. Friedrich Engels: His Life and Thought. London: Macmillan, 1989. An intellectual biography that emphasizes the importance of Engels’s early writings and their subsequent influence on his political and social ideas.

Carver, Terrell. Marx and Engels: The Intellectual Relationship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Any serious student of Engels must pay attention to his long and complicated friendship with Karl Marx, and Carver’s account of their relationship is an extensive and convincing one.

Coates, Zelda K. The Life and Work of Friedrich Engels. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920. A dated but still valuable overview of Engels’s career. The ideas that invigorated his active and influential life are the primary focus of attention.

Hammen, Oscar J. The Red ’48ers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. New York: Scribner, 1969. Hammen focuses on the interlinked activities of Engels and Karl Marx up to 1850, with the balance of his study devoted to the tumultuous events of 1848-1849.

Henderson, W. O. The Life of Friedrich Engels. 2 vols. London: Cassells, 1976. An impressively thorough work that is particularly good on Engels’s relationships with his contemporaries.

Hunley, J. D. The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. This scholarly but readable study focuses on its subject’s relationship with Karl Marx and argues that Engels did not appreciably alter Marx’s ideas in the process of disseminating them.

McClellan, David. Friedrich Engels. New York: Viking Press, 1978. A brief but authoritative introduction to Engels’s life and work by one of the foremost scholars in the field.

Marcus, Steven. Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class. New York: Random House, 1974. Marcus analyzes Engels from the standpoint of his relationship to Victorian England and, in the process, provides a wealth of useful background information in a book aimed at the intelligent general reader.

Riazanov, D. B. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work. Translated by Joshua Kunitz. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973. An interpretation from the point of view of orthodox communist theory that helps to explain how the ideas of two nineteenth century German intellectuals became the basis of the Soviet Union’s foundation.