European studies blog

28 November 2020

Friedrich Engels: politics and paradoxes

On New Year’s Eve 1857, a Manchester businessman wrote a long letter to a friend in London, ending with a description of an enjoyable day’s foxhunting. He boasted of having been one of the best horsemen in the field, and was excited to have been in at the kill. It might come as a surprise that the writer and recipient were the ‘fathers of communism’, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but it points to some of the contradictions in the life of Engels, whose 200th birthday we mark today. (The letter can be found vol. 40 of the complete works of Marx and Engels, pp. 233-6)

Engels family background was almost a pattern of early 19th-century German ‘Biedermeier’ rectitude: his parents were devout pietists, and his father’s cotton mill in Barmen (now part of the city of Wuppertal) was part of Germany’s early industrial development. The young Engels soon rejected his parents’ religion, but would be associated with the family business, Ermen & Engels, for significant portions of his life.

It was while studying commerce as an apprentice in Bremen that Engels began to move in radical circles and to write about the harsh life of factory workers that he observed. Although he used a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his family, they were concerned enough at his political views to send him to England to take up a clerical post in Ermen & Engels mill in Salford in the hope of turning him away from radical ideas. The plan backfired as Engels became more rather than less concerned with the plight of the workers and the need for them to combine against their oppressors. He closely studied the lives of the working people in and around Manchester, not merely researching statistics and studies, but visiting some of the poorest and most wretched districts of the city and meeting the people there.

Lage der arbeitenden Klasse
Title-page of the first edition of
Zur Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England  (Leipzig, 1845) 1141.d.25

The resulting book, Zur Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (The Condition of the Working Class in England), published in 1845 after he had left England, remains one of Engels’ best-known works. Although no English translation appeared until 1886, this first German edition has a long dedication in English ‘to the working classes of Great Britain’, ending with an exhortation to them to continue progressing towards a better future. Its ending – ‘be firm, be undaunted – your success is certain and no step you will have to take … will be lost to our common cause, the cause of humanity!’ seem to foreshadow the famous final words of the Communist Manifesto, which Engels wrote with Karl Marx four years later: ‘Workers of all countries, unite!’

Green paper cover of 'Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei'
Cover of the first edition of the Communist Manifesto (London, 1849) C.194.b.289

Engels and Marx had first met briefly in 1842, but the encounter was not a success. However, during his time in Salford, Engels had published various articles in German radical papers that had interested Marx, and when they met again in Paris in 1844, they found that their thinking had become very similar, and quickly agreed to work together. It was the start of a life-long friendship and collaboration, but one where Engels, by his own willing admission, would play second fiddle to Marx, whose mind and work he considered the more important.

In practice, this meant giving up much of his own revolutionary work to provide both moral and practical support to Marx. After the failure of the revolutions of 1848-9, both men lived as exiles in Britain. While Marx studied and wrote, Engels returned to his clerical job with Ermen & Engels, gradually rising to become a partner in the firm. During the 20 years that he worked there, Engels lived a double life: a middle-class businessman who enjoyed bourgeois pursuits and was a member of prestigious social institutions, yet was dedicated to ending the grip of middle-class businessmen on trade and industry, and a champion of the working classes who was part of the system that exploited them, and who worked in a trade dependent for most of his career on cotton produced by enslaved people in the Americas. This double life took literal form in the two households he maintained, one where he could entertain ‘respectable’ colleagues and friends and one where he could live with Mary Burns, an Irish worker who was his partner from 1842 until her death in 1863 (he later lived with her sister Lizzy, and eventually married her on her deathbed in 1878).

Half-length photograph of Engels
Friedrich Engels during his time in Manchester (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

As well as juggling these different lives, Engels was sometimes pushed almost too hard by Marx. After Mary’s death, Marx’s letter of condolence also contained an appeal for money couched in joking terms that the grieving Engels found hard to forgive. And when Marx fathered an illegitimate son with the family’s servant, Helene Demuth, it was Engels who claimed paternity of the boy and gave him his name to save Marx’s wife Jenny from discovering the truth. Nonetheless, the bond between the two men remained strong. Their almost daily letters overflow with private jokes and nicknames and scurrilous gossip alongside – sometimes part and parcel of – intense social, political and theoretical debate. Engels was also much loved by Marx’s family and considered by his daughters as a ‘second father’.

In 1869 Engels was at last able to give up his day job, move to London to be near Marx, and return seriously to writing. After Marx’s death, he worked with Marx’s daughter Eleanor to complete the second volume of Das Kapital – as well as understanding his thought better than almost anyone else, Engels was one of the few people who could easily read Marx’s handwriting. 

Hand-written inscription in a copy of 'Kapital'
Inscription in volume 2 of the Russian translation of Das Kapital presented to the British Museum Library by Engels and Eleanor Marx (St Petersburg, 1885). C.185.b.12.

Although Engels was by this time something of a grand old man of revolutionary socialism, he remained and still remains somewhat in Marx’s shadow. He has no massive monument like Marx’s famous grave in Highgate Cemetery (Engels’ ashes were scattered in the sea near Beachey Head), and the commemorations of his bicentenary have been modest in comparison with those for Marx in 2018, and not just because of the Covid pandemic. Perhaps the anniversary will nonetheless offer an opportunity to look again at his work and legacy.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies