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.)