Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1863
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.
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.
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 eventual goal of abolishing capitalism. Engels wrote caustically on the deliberations of the Frankfurt Assembly as that body failed to unite Germany, and he discussed revolution-related military campaigns in Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere. The authorities suspended the paper’s publication in September and October, and Engels fled, taking an extended walking tour in France and returning to Cologne in January, 1849. He replaced Marx as editor-in-chief in April and May. In early May, uprisings occurred in several German areas, including Engels’ hometown. He left Cologne to take part, but order was soon restored; he went back to Cologne, but the government, recovering its sense of initiative, shut down the Neue Rheinische Zeitung for good.
As revolutionary hopes faded everywhere in Europe, the Prussian king declined the invitation of the Frankfurt Assembly to serve as ruler of a new united Germany; only two small states supported the defiant, obviously doomed call to unite the country as a republic. Engels joined the volunteer corps, led by August Willich, as the revolutionary diehards held out for more than a month against overwhelming Prussian and other forces; he was among the last to cross into Switzerland. His sole experience of revolutionary combat showed the limitations of slogans and zeal against military organization.
Engels sailed from Genoa to London, already the refuge of Marx and many other revolutionary refugees. Debates on tactics and organization soon led to a split between the “party of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung,” who argued that a real revolution would depend on years of preparation, education, and economic development, and those (including Engels’ former commander Willich and other officers) who wished to revive the revolution by immediate conspiratorial and military action. As on several other occasions, Marx and Engels opposed more impatient revolutionaries. One consequence of this émigré discord (1850-1851) was that Engels took up the study of military science, to contest the opposing faction’s monopoly on military expertise.
Bowing to economic necessity, Engels went to work at his father’s company in Manchester. After his father’s death in 1860, he became a partner in the firm, selling out his interest in 1869. His income from the textile mill, and later from successful investments, supported an official address where he met his business contacts, and a home where he lived with Mary Burns, a factory worker whom he had met during his visit to England in 1842-1844. It also furnished the chief, and often the only, source of support for the Marx family in London.
Until he was able to move to London in 1869, Engels corresponded daily with Marx. He wrote articles, often under Marx’s name, for sale. When Eugen Dühring came forward with a rival socialist philosophy, Engels replied with Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft (1877-1878; Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, 1894), following Dühring into natural philosophy as well as politics. The work and an excerpt from it, Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (1882; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1892), are Engels’ best-known works, standing alongside The Communist Manifesto as summaries of Marxist thought, and sometimes accused of leading subsequent Marxists into simplistic materialist determinism. His foray into anthropology, Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats (1884; The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1902), has attracted some attention from feminist scholars. At great cost to his eyesight, Engels worked through vast quantities of overlapping, ill-organized drafts in Marx’s wretched handwriting to produce volumes 2 and 3 of Marx’s Das Kapital (1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1907, 1908, best known as Das Kapital).
Described as military in bearing and nicknamed “General” by Marx’s daughters after writing his brilliant articles on the Franco-Prussian War, Engels made a specialty of military science. In addition to writing about wars and crises as bread-and-butter journalism, he studied war as a phenomenon which might improve or diminish the prospects of revolution. Some capitalist states were more regressive and obnoxious than others, and Engels and Marx were never indifferent to the wars of their lifetimes. The most important fruit of Engels’ military studies was his conclusion, after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, that all the great powers would have to adopt the Prussian-style universal-service army. That meant that there was hope for the revolution, despite the folly of insurrection against an intact army; a socialist electoral majority would be reflected by a majority in the ranks, and the army would vanish as a counterrevolutionary instrument.
After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels found himself in the role of interpreter of Marx’s theories and as leader of the movement. He dispensed encouragement and advice to the younger socialists and presided over splendid parties in celebration of holidays and socialist election victories. His companion Mary Burns had died in 1863, succeeded in Engels’ household by her sister Lizzie, whom Engels married on her deathbed in 1878. Engels presided at the Zurich Conference of the Second International in 1893, the grand old man of a growing, confident, worldwide movement. When Engels died of throat cancer in 1895, his ashes were scattered in the sea off Beachy Head.
Friedrich Engels’ name usually appears preceded by “Marx and.” He was indeed important, not apart from Marx, but as a full partner in the creation of Marxism. In addition to providing Marx’s material needs, protecting Marx’s scholarly labors from interruption, and furnishing his friend vital psychological support for forty years, Engels brought to Marxism a quick intelligence and an acquaintance with the real world of capitalism. Involved in conceiving and elaborating all the varied aspects of Marxism and predominant in the crucial area of revolutionary tactics, Engels played an indispensable part in creating Marxism as an intellectual system and as a political and social movement.
Berger, Martin. Engels, Armies and Revolution: The Revolutionary Tactics of Classical Marxism. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977. Emphasizes Engels’ thought on war and military institutions as a key to Marxist views on international relations and the timing and tactics of revolution.
Henderson, W. O. The Life of Friedrich Engels. 2 vols. London: Frank Cass, 1976. A detailed study, strongest on Engels’ business life in England.
Hunt, Richard N. The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels. 2 vols. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974-1984. A standard account. Differentiates Marx and Engels from both Leninist and Social Democratic varieties of Marxism.
Lichtheim, George. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study. 2d rev. ed. New York: Praeger, 1965. An unusually coherent account of Marxism, placing Engels in context.
McLellan, David. Friedrich Engels. New York: Viking Press, 1978. A concise (120-page) introduction in the Modern Masters series, a by-product of the author’s major Marx biography.
Marcus, Steven. Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class. New York: Random House, 1974. A perceptive study of Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 as a literary work.
Mayer, Gustav. Friedrich Engels: A Biography. Translated by Gilbert Highet and Helen Highet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936. A condensation of the great two-volume German original (1934). Still a sound treatment.
Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1940. A classic popular account of the development of Marxism. Contains a good sketch of the Marx-Engels relationship.