Friedrich Engels

The German revolutionist and social theorist Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) was the cofounder with Karl Marx of modern socialism.

Friedrich Engels was born on Nov. 28, 1820, in Barmen, Rhenish Prussia, a small industrial town in the Wupper valley. He was the oldest of the six children of Friedrich and Elisabeth Franziska Mauritia Engels. The senior Engels, a textile manufacturer, was a Christian Pietist and religious fanatic. After attending elementary school at Barmen, young Friedrich entered the gymnasium in nearby Elberfeld at the age of 14, but he left it 3 years later. Although he became one of the most learned men of his time, he had no further formal schooling.

Under pressure from his tyrannical father, Friedrich became a business apprentice in Barmen and Barmen, but he soon called it a "dog's life." He left business at the age of 20, in rebellion against both his joyless home and the "penny-pinching" world of commerce. Henceforth, Engels was a lifelong enemy of organized religion and of capitalism, although he was again forced into business for a number of years.

While doing his one-year compulsory military service (artillery) in Berlin, Engels came into contact with the radical Young Hegelians and embraced their ideas, particularly the materialist philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. After some free-lance journalism, part of it under the pseudonym of F. Oswald, in November 1842 Engels went to Manchester, England, to work in the office of Engels and Ermens, a spinning factory in which his father was a partner. In Manchester, the manufacturing center of the world's foremost capitalist country, Engels had the opportunity of observing capitalism's operations—and its distressing effects on the workers—at first hand. He also studied the leading economic writers, among them Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Robert Owen in English, and Jean Baptiste Say, Charles Fourier, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon in French. He left Manchester in August 1844.

On his way back to Germany, Engels stopped in Paris, where he met Karl Marx for a second time. On this occasion a lifelong intellectual rapport was established between them. Finding they were of the same opinion about nearly everything, Marx and Engels decided to collaborate on their writing.

Engels spent the next 5 years in Germany, Belgium, and France, writing and participating in revolutionary activities. He fought in the 1849 revolutionary uprising in Baden and the Palatinate, seeing action in four military engagements. After the defeat of the revolution, he escaped to Switzerland. In October 1849, using the sea route via Genoa, he sailed to England, which became his permanent home.

In November 1850, unable to make a living as a writer in London and anxious to help support the penniless Marx, Engels reluctantly returned to his father's business in Manchester. In 1864, after his father's death, he became a partner in the firm, and by early 1869 he felt that he had enough capital to support himself and to provide Marx with a regular annuity of £350. On July 1, 1869, Engels sold his share of the business to his partner. He exulted in a letter to Marx: "Hurrah! Today I finished with sweet commerce, and I am a free man!" Marx's daughter, Eleanor, who saw Engels on that day, wrote: "I shall never forget the triumphant 'For the last time,' which he shouted as he drew on his top-boots in the morning to make his last journey to business. Some hours later, when we were standing at the door waiting for him, we saw him coming across the little field opposite his home. He was flourishing his walking stick in the air and singing, and laughing all over his face."

In September 1870 Engels moved to London, settling near the home of Marx, whom he saw daily. A generous friend and gay host, the fun-loving Engels spent the remaining 25 years of his life in London, enjoying good food, good wine, and good company. He also worked hard, doing the things he loved: writing, maintaining contact and a voluminous correspondence with radicals everywhere, and—after Marx's death in 1883—laboring over the latter's notes and manuscripts, bringing out volumes 2 and 3 of Das Kapital in 1885 and 1894, respectively. Engels died of cancer on Aug. 5, 1895. Following his instructions, his body was cremated and his ashes strewn over the ocean at Eastbourne, his favorite holiday resort.


Personality and Character

Engels was medium-height, slender, and athletic. His body was disciplined by swimming, fencing, and riding. He dressed and acted like an elegant English gentleman. In Manchester, where he maintained two homes—one for appearances, as befitted a member of the local stock exchange, and another for his Irish mistress—he rode to hounds with the English gentry, whom he despised as capitalists but by whose antic behavior he was sardonically amused.

Engels had a brilliant mind and was quick, sharp, and unerring in his judgments. His versatility was astonishing. A successful businessman, he also had a grasp of virtually every branch of the natural sciences, biology, chemistry, botany, and physics. He was a widely respected specialist on military affairs. He mastered numerous languages, including all the Slavic ones, on which he planned to write a comparative grammar. He also knew Gothic, Old Nordic, and Old Saxon, studied Arabic, and in 3 weeks learned Persian, which he said was "mere child's play." His English, both spoken and written, was impeccable. It was said of him that he "stutters in 20 languages."

Engels apparently never married. He loved, and lived with successively, two Irish sisters, Mary (who died in 1863) and Lydia (Lizzy) Burns (1827-1878). After he moved to London, he referred to Lizzy as "my wife." The Burns sisters, ardent Irish patriots, stirred in Engels a deep sympathy for the Irish cause. He said of Lizzy Burns: "She came of real Irish proletarian stock, and the passionate feeling for her class, which was instinctive with her, was worth more to me than all the blue-stockinged elegance of 'educated' and 'sensitive' bourgeois girls."


His Writings

Engels published hundreds of articles, a number of prefaces (mostly to Marx's works), and about half a dozen books during his lifetime. His first important book, written when he was 24 years old, was The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, based on observations made when he lived in Manchester. It was published in German in 1845 and in English in 1892. His next publication was the Manifesto of the Communist Party (Communist Manifesto), which he wrote in collaboration with Marx between December 1847 and January 1848, and which was published in London in German a month later. An anonymous English edition came out in London in 1850.

Engels also collaborated with Marx on The Holy Family, an attack on the Young Hegelian philosopher Bruno Bauer, which was published in Germany in 1845. Another collaboration with Marx, The German Ideology, was written in 1845-1846, but it was not published in full until 1932.

In 1870 Engels published The Peasant War in Germany, which consisted of a number of articles he had written in 1850; an English translation appeared in 1956. In 1878 he published perhaps his most important book, Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science, known in an English translation as Anti-Dühring (1959). This work ranks, together with Marx's Das Kapital, as the most comprehensive study of socialist (Marxist) theory. In it, Engels wrote, he treated "every possible subject, from the concepts of time and space to bimetallism; from the eternity of matter and motion to the perishable nature of moral ideas; from Darwin's natural selection to the education of youth in a future society."

Engels's Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science was published in German in 1882 and in English, under the title Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, in 1892. In 1884 he brought out The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, an indispensable work for understanding Marxist political theory. His last work, published in 1888, was Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Both of these last books are available in English. Two works by Engels were published posthumously: Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution (German, 1896; English, 1933) and Dialectics of Nature, begun in 1895 but never completed, of which an English translation appeared in 1964.


Engels's Ideas

In his articles and books Engels elaborated and developed, both historically and logically, basic ideas that go under the name of Marxism. His work was not an limitation of Marx but constituted a consistent philosophy at which both men had arrived independently and had shared in common. Engels refined the concept of dialectical materialism, which Marx had never fully worked out, to include not only matter but also form. He stressed that the materialist conception takes into consideration the whole cultural process, including tradition, religion, and ideology, which goes through constant historical evolution. Each stage of development, containing also what Engels called "thought material," builds upon the totality of previous developments. Thus every man is a product both of his own time and of the past. Similarly, he elaborated his view of the state, which he regarded as "nothing less than a machine for the oppression of one class by another," as evolving, through class struggles, into the "dictatorship of the proletariat."


Further Reading on Friedrich Engels

Although Engels's writings are available in English, there is no good biography of him in English. Some biographical information can be found in Gustav Mayer, Friedrich Engels: A Biography (1934; trans. 1936), a dated and incomplete work; Grace Carlton, Friedrich Engels: The Shadow Prophet (1965), a superficial biography not based on original sources; and Oscar J. Hammen, The Red 48'ers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1969). Good general works which discuss Engels are Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940); George Lichtheim, Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (1961); and Bertram D. Wolfe, Marxism: One Hundred Years in the Life of a Doctrine (1965).