Who Was Frederick Engels?

The People
Feb. 19, 1983
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Question Period
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Who Was Frederick Engels?

Frederick Engels was the lifelong collaborator of Karl Marx and, with him, the cofounder of scientific socialism.

Engels was bom on November 28, 1820, in Barmen, Germany. The eldest son of a prosperous textile manufacturer, he was groomed to take over his father's business. However, Engels became involved in the intellectual, political and economic ferment then sweeping Europe and regarded the time he spent in the textile business as a diversion from his real lifework -- involvement in the revolutionary working-class movement.

Though Engels had met Marx briefly in 1842, their friendship and close association didn't begin until 1844. Their first joint work was "The Holy Family," a critique of some of the followers of the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.

Prior to "The Holy Family," Engels wrote his "Outlines of a Critique on Political Economy." That essay greatly influenced Marx who later spoke of the "genius" he found in it.

In 1844-45, Engels wrote one of his major works, "The Condition of the Working Class in England." This work has been described as one that laid the scientific foundation for socialism. Among other things, it described the effect of machinery on the working class and the consequences to society as a whole.

In 1847, Engels and Marx joined the Communist League. The following year, they were commissioned to draw up a manifesto for the league. That work, "The Communist Manifesto," was their most famous joint effort. In it, they forcefully indicted capitalism, concisely outlined the concept of the class struggle, and pointed the way to a new classless society.

Later, the two developed a division of labor. As Engels described it later, "It fell to me to present our opinions in the periodical press, and therefore, particularly in the fight against opposing views, in order that Marx should have time for the elaboration of his great basic work." However, he also noted, "It was always our custom to assist each other reciprocally in our special fields." Engels played an important part in the production of that great basic work of Marxism, "Capital." While Marx worked on "Capital," Engels worked in the family textile business in Manchester, England, providing financial assistance for Marx and his family and writing many of the newspaper articles that appeared under Marx's name.

As the work proceeded. Marx regularly kept Engels informed of its progress and sought his advice. When Volume I was completed in 1867, Marx wrote to Engels, "It was thanks to you that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work."

When Marx died in 1883, having finished only the first volume of "Capital," Engels dropped his own work to prepare for publication the remainder of Marx's notes and sometimes rough drafts.

In 1878, Engels published "Anti-Duehring," a polemic against the positivist philosopher Eugene Duehring, whom Engels considered a "muddler" but who was winning great influence in the German socialist movement. According to Engels's biographer Gustav Mayer, "Anti-Deuehring was "the first book to reveal the content and viewpoint of Marxism to the leaders of German social democracy."

The book was immediately banned in Germany. However, its introduction and final chapter were reprinted separately as the pamphlet "Socialism: From Utopia to Science." Mayer called the pamphlet "the most challenging product from the workshop of Marx and Engels" next to "The Communist Manifesto."

Despite his voluminous writings, Engels -- like Marx -- was no armchair revolutionary, analyzing at a distance the unfolding class struggle. He was in the thick of it, for example, taking part in several battles during the 1848-49 revolutions in Europe.

After leaving the textile business for good in 1870, Engels joined Marx in London and played a prominent role in the International, particularly in the struggle against the anarchism of Bakunin. After Marx's death, Engels was consulted for advice by socialists the world over. He lived to see the founding of the Second International, although he expressed reservations about the reformist tendencies already evident before his death on August 5, 1895.

Engels and Marx are rightly regarded as the cofounders of scientific socialism. Their 40 years of friendship and collaboration make it virtually impossible to think of one without the other.

Indeed, each man acknowledged his indebtedness to the other. Engels, whose genius was complemented by great modesty, always said that he was secondary to Marx and sometimes even belittled his own contribution to socialism. But on one occasion, Marx wrote to Engels, "You know that, first of all, I arrive at things slowly, and, secondly, I always follow in your footsteps." According to Mayer, Engels "anticipated Marx in understanding modern capitalism, in defining the position of the proletariat in opposition to it, in attempting to synthesize German philosophy and English political economy, in accepting communism as his own creed, and in demanding and assisting the international unification of all communists."