Friedrich Engels

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1668

Friedrich Engels 1820-1895

German essayist, journalist, and propagandist.

Often discussed only within the context of his relationship with Karl Marx, Engels nevertheless established his own reputation as a major figure within the developing socialist movement in the nineteenth century. Although he himself admitted that his own fame was garnered through his collaboration with Marx, many modern critics have argued that Engels’ work and ideas influenced and enhanced the work of Marx. In addition to making Marx's complex economic and social theories accessible to the working class, Engels contributed his own experience and knowledge to the development of Marxist theories and to his own theories. Devoted to the communist cause, Engels applied dialectical materialism to a variety of interests, including military studies, natural science, and history.

Biographical Information

Born in Barmen in 1820, Engels was the oldest of eight children. Engels’ father ran a bleaching and spinning business and had partners in Manchester, England. Because his father wanted him to begin training to run the family business, the young Engels was removed from school before being allowed to take the final examinations necessary for entrance to university. In 1838, Engels traveled to Bremen for an internship. There, he was influenced by the Young German movement and its position on freedom. Engels wrote “Briefe aus dem Wuppertal” (Letters from Wuppertal) anonymously in 1839, in which he criticizes the Christian Pietists (the religion of his parents) for their treatment of factory workers. At this time, Engels also studied the revolutionary works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In 1841 Engels traveled to Berlin to serve his year of mandatory military service. While attending lectures at the university, he became involved with the Young Hegelian movement. In 1842, after finishing his military service, Engels went to Manchester to work for his father's partners. Here Engels was exposed to the effects of industrialization on the English working class. In response, he became interested in the works of utopian socialists, including Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, and with the Chartists (an English labor movement), and the League of the Just (exiled German utopian socialists). In 1844, Engels’ article “Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie” (Critical Essays in Political Economy) appeared in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. In it, Engels condemns the effects of private property on the working class and concludes that private property must be abolished. After gathering more information on the plight of English workers, Engels returned to Barmen and wrote Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (1845; translated in 1887 as The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844). In 1845 Engels joined Marx in Brussels. The two had been corresponding and had met briefly on two occasions. They penned their first joint treatise “Die deutsche Ideologie” in 1846. Engels spent the next years disseminating the goals of the “scientific” communism he and Marx developed. He continued to collaborate with Marx (on such works as Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (1848; translated in 1888 as Manifesto of the Communist Party) and to write his own analyses of German revolutionary struggles. Returning to Manchester in 1850 to manage the family factory, Engels concentrated on the study of military science and history while encouraging Marx to complete the first volume of Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1867; translated in 1887 as Capital: A Critical Analyses of Capitalist Production). In 1870 Engels moved to London and devoted himself to the socialist movement. Engels wrote a series of articles in the 1870s in which he attacked a reformist leader of the German Socialist Workers’ party. The articles were collected as Herr Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft (1878; translated as Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science [Anti-Dühring] in 1934). Engels continued to encourage Marx to finish the second volume of Das Kapital, but Marx died in 1883. Engels spent the rest of his life serving as an advisor to working class movements and continuing to study and write about a variety of topics related to scientific communism and dialectics. He died of throat cancer in 1895.

Major Works

Engels’ first major effort was The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. In it, Engels outlinesd the foundations for modern sociology and described the history of the rise of industrialization in England as well as the increasing conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. His “Grundsätze des Kommunismus” (1932; translated in 1925 as Principles of Communism) became the first draft of his collaborative effort with Marx, the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Another significant work was Anti-Dühring. In explicating dialectical and historical materialism, Marxist political economy, and scientific socialism, Engels presented Marxist theory to the proletariat in language easily understood by working-class men. Concerned with the historical development of socialism, Engels studied the relationship between the development of the family and how capitalism adversely affects families. Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats (1884; translated in 1891 as The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State) is a critique of an anthropological study by Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society; or, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (1877). In this critique, Engels attempted to demonstrate how the family, property relations, and the state are determined by historical conditions and subject to change. The work is often recognized as one of the first efforts to link patriarchy and capitalism. Engels also began a major work that was left unfinished upon his death. Kialektik der Natur (1935; translated in 1940 as Dialectics of Nature) represents Engels’ attempt to apply dialectical materialism to recent developments in physical sciences.

Critical Reception

While Engels’ early writings, such as his essays on political economy and The Condition of the Working Class in England, generated Marx's interest and inspired a lifetime of collaboration, Engels’ work was less well-received in London. The Condition of the Working Class was reprinted in 1892 and reviewers from The Spectator and The Westminster Review suggest that Engels’ attack on capitalism was unfounded. A reviewer from The Spectator commented that the only reason the book was worth republishing was “to show what foolish things a clever man may say.” After Engels’ death in 1895, however, he received a somewhat objective obituary in The Economic Journal. The same year, Vladimir I. Lenin eulogized Engels and offered a summary of his work and his collaboration with Marx. Lenin observed that Engels’ writing is “easy and frequently polemic in style,” and that his work was guided by the materialist view of history as well as Marx's economic theories. Modern critics have focused on Engels’ specific works or areas of study as well as on the collaborative relationship of Engels and Marx. Engels’ time in England and the development of his politics is a focus of critical interest. Critic Gregory Claeys has observed that despite the interest in The Condition of the Working Class, Engels’ first years in Manchester, 1842 through 1844, have been largely neglected. Claeys has studied the political statements Engels’ made in various articles written during this time in order to determine the extent to which Engels was influenced by utopian socialist ideas. Arguing that once in England Engels soon adopted the non-violent strategy of Robert Owen's brand of socialism, Claeys then traces Engels’ movement from Owenite socialism to Marxism. While Engels eventually came to believe that revolution was necessary and that utopian and scientific socialism were incompatible, Claeys has argued, Engels nevertheless retained the belief that Owenite methods could reduce the violence of class conflict. Another critic, Michael Levin, has offered a similar evaluation of Engels’ studies of the English working class. Levin discusses several factors that influenced Engels’ views, including the Chartist movement and Owenitism. In a slight contrast to Claeys’ assessment, Levin states that Engels rejected Owenite socialism as he recognized that such utopian socialists did not view socialism as a historical product of social circumstances. Levin argues that Engels was swayed by the Chartist stance and held that while revolution was necessary, it could only take place after the proletariat had gained parliamentary control. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State has also been closely studied by modern critics. Bernhard J. Stern has offered a detailed analysis of the work, stressing its emphasis on the condemnation of capitalism because of its subjection of women. Stern goes on to point out some of the problems with generalizations Engels made. In his analysis of The Origin of the Family, Richard J. Wiltgen has focused on the way Engels employed the materialist conception of history. Wiltgen comments that Engels's achievement in the area of anthropological study is his “exposition of the socioeconomic development of pre-capitalist societies.” Like Wiltgen, critic Gareth Stedman Jones has been interested in Engels’ development and application of historical materialism. Jones, however, has examined The Condition of the Working Class in order to assess Engels’ contribution to Marx's theory. Jones comments that while Engels is credited with the formulation of dialectical materialism, typically he is only allotted a “vaguely auxiliary role” in the development of the theory of historical materialism. Conceding that Engels could not have produced the theory on his own, Jones has stressed that without Engels’ study of the conditions in England, it would have taken Marx much longer to develop the theory. Jones highlights the specific contributions of The Conditions of the Working Class to Marxist theory. Engels’ final, though unfinished work, Dialectics of Nature focuses on “the search for the fundamental dialectal laws which govern the universe as well as the inquiring mind” notes Dirk J. Struik. Explaining and assessing the laws of dialectics as developed by Engels, Struik has praised Engels’ achievements in the philosophy of science. Similarly, B. M. Kedrov has stated that through Dialectics, Engels sought to “synthesize the findings of natural science in his day from the standpoint of materialist dialectics.” Kedrov has traced the history of the text, assessed its contents and concluded that the work may be viewed as a “natural-science introduction to Marx's Capital.” However, Gareth Stedman Jones has commented that it is improbable that Engels viewed Dialectics “as an all-encompassing genetic theory of development, of which Capital was to form the final social-historical part.”

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Principal Works