Engels at 200

2020 marks the 200th birth of Frederich Engels in 1820. Who was Frederich Engels? Why he is important to remember? What did he do?

Friedrich Engels was born on November 28, 1820, in Barmen, Germany, into a wealthy family with deep roots in the yarn and cloth industry. His father owned a textile factory in Barmen and he was a partner in a cotton spinning factory in Manchester, England. At the age of 13 Engels attended the grammar school at Elberfeld but had to leave at 17 to work in his father's firm and then sent to start an apprenticeship in Breman. While in Breman he read the philosophy of Hegel and began to write political commentaries

Engels was soon leading a double life as a businessman by day, and increasingly, a radical at night. Affiliating with left-wing intellectuals, he began a career as a political journalist under the pseudonym Friedrich Oswald. Among his more early writings were his LETTERS FROM WUPPERTAL (1839), an eyewitness account of the negative consequences of early industrialization and an attack on provincial bourgeois hypocrisy in the Rhineland district where he had grown up.

In October 1842, Engels moved to Manchester to work in the family business and to continue his career as a radical journalist. He arrived in England only weeks after the general strike of 1842. The strike was influenced by the Chartist movement - a mass working class movement from 1838-1848. After the second Chartist Petition was presented to Parliament in May 1842, Stalybridge a town in Tameside, Greater Manchester, contributed 10,000 signatures. After the rejection of the petition the first general strike began in the coal mines of Staffordshire. The second phase of the strike originated in Stalybridge.

Engels met members of the chartists and built-up a collection of radical books and pamphlets. Between 1843 and 1849 he wrote for the Chartist newspaper NORTHERN STAR. In November 22 1847 he wrote a sketch of the Chartist movement in the magazine LA REFORME.

Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844. Engels met Marx for a second time at the Cafe de la Regence on the Place du Palais, 28 August 1844. The two quickly became close friends and remained so their entire lives. Engels stayed in Paris to help Marx write THE HOLY FAMILY. It was an attack on the Young Hegelians and the Bauer and the brothers, and was published in late February 1845.

Engels contributed articles to various European publications, including OUTLINES OF A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY (1844) and to an annual publication co-edited in Paris by Karl Marx. Marx was deeply impressed by Engels' work on political economy, describing it as a "brilliant sketch on the criticism of the economic categories" (A CONTRIBUTION TO POLITICAL ECONOMY 1971: page 22). The article may have been the catalyst that turned Marx's attention to economic studies.

OUTLINES OF A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY (1844) was a sustained attack on the works of the political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and J. B. Say, the iniquitous Poor Law of 1834 and Parson Malthus's Population theory which blamed the poor for being poor. The article does not have the rigour of Marx's later critique of political economy but it is the start of scientific examination of capitalism, its contradictions, method of exploitation and the growth of the working class capable of replacing the profit system with socialism.

In 1843, Marx wrote a summary of the article for himself in the fifth notebook of excerpts from the works of economists when he was in Paris (M/E Collected Works volume 3). And shortly afterwards embarked on his own study of political economy, which absorbed the greater part of his time and energy for the rest of his life. In CAPITAL, VOLUME I, Marx quotes from Engels's essay five times (for the pedantic the entry can be found on pages. 168, 253, 267, 787, and 1007 of the Penguin 1976 edition).

The two men began a long-term intellectual and political relationship as revolutionary socialists. Engels thought he played "second fiddle" to Marx. He was being too modest. He was a revolutionary socialist in his own right. He had original and independent political and theoretical thoughts and insights. And he has left a body of work which is still of importance today.

Engels published, in German, THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND in 1845. Based on his own observations and a mass of contemporary reports, the book described the terrible conditions suffered by English workers-the unsanitary streets of densely crowded urban slums, the decaying and degrading living quarters, the disrupted and disintegrating families, and the unsavoury, unsafe, and physically debilitating factories themselves. He was taken through the slums, most probably for his own protection, by his partner and lover, Lizzie Burns. He learnt from first-hand experience the living conditions of the working class.

Following Marx's exile from Paris, Engels joined him on Brussels in late April 1845, to collaborate with Marx on another book. Engels joined Marx, initially in Brussels, and worked closely with him over the next several years building the intellectual and political foundations of an international revolutionary movement. They co-authored THE HOLY FAMILY (1845), THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY (1846), and, most famously, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848). They joined forces in transforming various workers' groups, secret socialist societies, and incipient radical political parties into, first, the League of the Just, and then into the International Communist League.

When hopes for revolution faded on the Continent in the late 1840s, Engels and Marx moved to England. Although he disliked this, Engels went to work in Manchester in his father's firm which enabled him to financially support Marx and his family. This meant that Marx could study political economy at the British Museum and to later write CAPITAL. After Marx's death, Engels went on to edit the second and third volumes of CAPITAL from Marx's notebooks. He also wrote many prefaces to new editions of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO as it became translated into many languages, and carried out correspondence with many supporters in other countries. Engels also wrote a number of reviews on CAPITAL including a synopsis and a supplement to Volume 111 (see FREDERICK ENGELS ON CAPITAL, International Publishers, 2002)


Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Perhaps Engels's most popular and influential work was SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC. Engels wrote SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC between January and March 1880. It was taken from a number of chapters of Engels's larger work, ANTI-DUHRING published in 1878.

This short pamphlet by Friedrich Engels is, along with the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, one of the best and most significant introductions to Marxism ever written. It greatly adds to our understanding the reason why it is for the world working class, and the world working class alone, to establish socialism. For the English edition, Engels wrote a substantial introduction plotting the rise of materialism in England and the rise of the capitalist class from the 17th century until the reform act of 1832.

The first section shows the limitations of the Utopian socialism of Saint Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Engels concludes the section by commenting: "To make a science of socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis" (SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, Kerr edition 1908 p75).

Engels noted that the real basis of socialism derived from the emergence of the class struggle taking place in Europe at such places as Lyon and with the rise of working class movements like the Chartists. These new facts forced a reassessment of history where it was seen that "...all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles..." (ibid p. 90).

Engels went on to state that the class struggles were always the product of the social systems of their time. And socialism was not some accidental discovery but the necessary outcome "of the struggle between two historically developed classes - the proletariat and the bourgeoisie" (ibid p91). Furthermore, capitalism could only be explained by two great discoveries: "the materialist conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value...". This, Engels concluded "we owe to Marx". With these two discoveries "Socialism became a science" (ibid p.93).

And what is the science of socialism? What does it state? The answer is given in the opening third section of the pamphlet:

"...the final causes of all social change and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains,..., but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch" (ibid p.94).

The third chapter gives a detailed sketch of the development of capitalism from the demise of Feudalism to the mid- 19th century drawing upon Marx's CAPITAL where the increased contradiction between "socialised production and capitalistic appropriation" leads to periodic economic crises and the class struggle (ibid p. 105). And in the final section of the third chapter, Engels discusses the capitalist state and the necessity for the working class to seize political power and gain control of the State to establish socialism.

"With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization" (ibid p133-134).

Throughout their adult lives, Marx and Engels held onto one of the most important political ideas to come out of socialist theory. It is found in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, in the rules of the First International and in their correspondence: And that is the idea that the establishment of socialism has to be the work of the working class themselves. Here is Engels in a letter:

"The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. We cannot, therefore, co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois."(1879 Marx and Engels)

Here is Engels again from the conclusion to SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC:

"To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat. To thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act, to impart to the now oppressed proletariat class a full knowledge of the conditions and of the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish, this is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific socialism" (ibid p. 139).

The establishment of socialism by the working class through its own efforts finds an echo in Clause 5 of the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, published in 1904:

"That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself"

This clause is directly echoed from the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and the rules of the First International.

Engels's Standing Today as a Socialist Revolutionary

Left wing academics do not like Engels. They blame him, without reason or evidence, for "distorting Marx", poorly editing the second and third volumes of CAPITAL, and for pushing Marx's theories into a direction which Marx would had been uncomfortable with. Yet, Marx was quite happy with Engels's collaboration; he asked him for advice and gave him the manuscripts of CAPITAL to comment on. True, the two volumes of CAPITAL that Engels edited lacked the polish of the first edition but they adequately work within Marx's plan and give a more or less total picture of Marx's intention in writing his critique of political economy. Who could have done any better?

By far the worse attack against Engels comes from career academics like Professor Terrell Carver of Bristol University. Carver wrote:

"Karl Marx denied that he was a Marxist. Friedrich Engels repeated Marx’s comment but failed to take his point. Indeed, it is now evident that Engels was the first Marxist, and it is increasingly accepted that he in some way invented Marxism" (Marx and Engels: THE INTELLECTUAL RELATIONSHIP 1984).

Carver blamed Engels for inventing "Marxism". However "Marxism" is a unified theory of value (the labour theory of value), a theory of history (the materialist conception of history) and the political concept of the class struggle. These were all set out in ANTI-DUHRING which Engels not only read to Marx but which Marx contributed a section to the book while writing the first preface to SOCILAISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC. Nowhere did Marx say that these did not represent his considered views.

You will find the germs of the materialist conception of history in Frederich Engels's CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS, written in 1844; the labour theory of value was developed by Marx in VALUE,PRICE AND PROFIT; and the class struggle and the role of the state are all in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, a joint work of 1848.

For Carver, the idea that Marx had "a methodology" was attributed to Engels, and hence declared false. What Carver, and others like him want to do, is make Marx respectable for university courses; a tame precursor to whatever is fashionable today in seminar rooms. As Carver recently put it, with no apparent sense of irony:

"Marx was a liberal thinker. There's not as much difference between Marx or indeed Marxism and liberalism as many people think. This is because if you are against non-constitutional, authoritarian regimes, you are a liberal"

So, for academics like Carver, Marx was a liberal not a revolutionary socialist and Engels is condemned for propagating the belief that he was!!!

And there are those academics who attack Engels for being a "historical determinist". Yet Engels, like Marx, always held that historical change was made by the actions of men and women. The class struggle was paramount. For socialism to be established requires the action of socialists. Socialism would not happen by itself.

We should not waste time with the "Get Engels" school of academic political "science". Only to note their arrogance in thinking that they and they alone understand Marx and it is only their theories which are in the tradition of Marx. If Marx came back and saw what they were writing in his name, he would never stop throwing up. Marx and Engels were both revolutionary socialists and that counts for more than the scribbling of any academic hack.

However there are criticisms that could be made of Engels. For a time he believed, unlike Marx, that capitalism had come to a standstill. This was during the great depression at the end of the nineteenth century. He later changed his mind again. Marx summed it up very well with the words: "There are no permanent crises" (THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE Vol. II Part 2 p 269).

Another criciticism which can be made against Engels is his view that socialism might come about through the actions of a minority of the working class. This was made in a letter to Bebel (24 October 1891).

Engels thought a minority of the working class might come to power by 1898 but saw the possibility that war might bring them to power prematurely, i.e. before they had time to "recruit enough technicians, doctors, lawyers and schoolmasters to enable us to have the factories and big estates administered on behalf of the nation by Party comrades.

Engels added:- "If...a war brings us to power prematurely, the technicians will be our chief enemies; they will deceive and destroy is wherever they can and we shall have to use terror against them but shall get cheated all the same".

This readiness to use "terror" against a section of the working class, along with support for street fighting and Engels completely unjustified belief that the German Social Democratic Party could be regarded as socialist shows the magnitude of the advance made by the founders of the S.P.G.B. from even the mature views of Marx and Engels.

One final criticism would be around Engels's optimism that a socialist revolution was just around the corner. He really did believe in 1892, with the publication of the English edition of SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC that a socialist revolution was near at hand. He could not see, or did not want to see, the contradictions within European social democracy.

In his conclusion to the English introduction to SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC he wrote:

"But the triumph of the European working-class does not depend upon England alone. It can only be secured by the cooperation of, at least, England, France, and Germany. In both the latter countries, the working-class movement is well ahead of England. In Germany, it is even within measurable distance of success. The progress it has there made during the last 25 years is unparalleled. It advances with ever-increasing velocity. If the German middle-class have shown themselves lamentably deficient in political capacity, discipline, courage, energy, and perseverance, the German working-class have given ample proof of all these qualities. Four hundred years ago, Germany was the starting-point of the first upheaval of the European middle-class; as things are now, is it outside the limits of possibility that Germany will be the scene, too, of the first great victory of the European proletariat?" (ibid p.45)

What Engels did not appreciate was that the reform programme of the SDP let into the Party non-socialists and also appealed to a non-socialist electorate. The Party also did nothing to ensure the membership was international in its outlook and rejected nationalism. The working class support for the SDP might have existed but it was not socialist. The programme was unfortunately a model to be copied by other political parties claiming to be socialist. Instead of unity around a socialist object there was disunity and confusion around a bundle of reforms.

Twenty years later the working class of England, France and Germany were killing each other on the battlefields of Europe. Standing alone, the Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed the First World War on grounds of class and class interest. Socialists oppose all wars, refusing to take sides. Unlike the SDP, the SPGB not only had a socialist membership with an international outlook it also had a set of socialist principles leading to a socialist object.

Nevertheless, Engels contributed much of value to socialist theory. He supported Marx. He wrote books and pamphlets in a clear and lucid style. His works are still worth reading, particularly for anyone new to socialism. We remember him with thanks as a socialist and as a revolutionary on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.