Engels and the workers' movement

After 150 years

By Sam Marcy (Feb. 10, 1994)
In 1844, just 150 years ago, a young German completed his investigation into living and working conditions in England and began writing a book about it. The Condition of the Working Class in England by Frederick Engels was published the following year in Leipzig.

It was more than a description of the deplorable conditions of the English workers, although Engels went into great detail and even included his own maps and charts of working-class neighborhoods in Manchester. Most important, it was the first time in literature that there had been a comprehensive analysis of the workers as a class.

The work is remarkable because of its clarity and lucidity. Even today it retains all its freshness. Engels' ability to write clearly and simply is illustrated most emphatically in this book, written 150 years ago.

The reason it has received relatively little attention, even from Marxist writers, is that it is in the category of pre-Marxist writings. Although Engels had first met Karl Marx in 1842 and they renewed their acquaintance in the summer of 1844, the book was Engels' own. But it laid the cornerstone for their collaboration.

A lifelong collaboration

Marx and Engels are so often treated as a unit that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the individual contributions of Engels. But they are there for anyone concerned with the historical evolution of the lifelong collaboration of the two.

The biographer Franz Mehring called their collaboration an incomparable alliance. Indeed, it is unique in world history.

There is literally no comparison that in any way matches it. It was a partnership between two geniuses working on the same material.

Such a collaboration is of course conceivable in many other fields of endeavor--perhaps art or history or industry. But this had to do with elaborating a world outlook. Both applied their genius to the task of scientific investigation geared to the socialist perspective, the perspective of world revolution.

Analysts of their relationship often have wondered why so little evidence of conflicts or broad differences of opinion between the two has been brought forth. Their collaboration was distinguished by an almost total absence of acrimony in a field of endeavor that covers so many social, political and historical views.

Mehring himself wondered about this, considering how long their relationship lasted. But even after both died, when nearly all the correspondence between them was published nothing emerged to show that there had been any breakdown of the relationship or any form of antagonism between them.

It is not altogether true that Engels simply complemented Marx's work. Both knew several languages, but it was Engels who, according to Mehring, could "stutter in 20 languages." It seems amazing, even today. Where did he get the time to do all this?

His early career as an officer in the Prussian army showed that he developed military skills and could give an account of himself in elaborating military strategy. The close attention he and Marx paid to the progress of the Civil War in the United States showed that Engels in particular understood military strategy. This is not to say, however, that Marx was unaware of the teachings of military science as it was then practiced.

From the point of view of sheer self-sacrifice, there is no precedent in history for what Engels did. This person of great intellectual and literary understanding gave up his own political career, took a job in his father's business after having tried earlier to escape such a dreary fate, and worked there for many years just to be able to support Marx and his family.

Engels sacrificed much of his own remarkable political and literary career so that Marx's work would see the light of day and his teachings could be made available to the world working class. Only devotion to the cause of the working class, socialism and the liberation of the proletariat from capitalist enslavement could bring forth such an individual.

In Engels' writings toward the end of his life, when he had much time to mull over his relationship with Marx, there is no indication of regret. He expressed only admiration for the great achievement that Marx was able to make in analyzing the capitalist system and illuminating the path of the socialist revolution.

Engels' graveside eulogy to Marx

When Marx died in 1883, it was Engels who, in a few simple paragraphs delivered as a eulogy at his graveside, summed up Marx's great contributions to human thought.

"Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature," said Engels, "so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.

"But that is not all. Marx also discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created. The discovery of surplus value suddenly threw light on the problem, in trying to solve which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and social critics, had been groping in the dark.

"Such was the man of science. But this was not even half the man. ... For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation."

Marx developed the materialist interpretation of history and the theory of surplus value. But he never expanded on what he considered his own contributions. Indeed, in a letter to his co-thinker Friedrich Sorge he explained that he had not discovered the class struggle. His contribution, said Marx, was to show that the class struggle was connected to the material interests of the classes and that it would lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat--which would then make possible the dissolution of all class conflicts and the fruition of socialism.

In all this, Engels was his chief collaborator and partner, his political supporter in every grave crisis, his financial supporter, and above all his friend. The unique relationship between them is often passed over, even by Marxist students.

Even while Engels was still alive, Karl Kautsky, the theoretical leader of the socialist movement in Germany, tried to project himself as the principal exponent of Marxism. Although Engels had generally been considered by Marx to be excessively modest, his reaction to this presumptuousness can be gauged in a letter he wrote to Kautsky.

Kautsky had said he was going to take responsibility for publishing Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program, a socialist party document that had been debated some years earlier. The criticism had been internal at the time and not for publication. Engels replied to Kautsky that it was not for Kautsky to take on himself such responsibility. If anyone should make such a decision concerning Marx's writings, Engels himself, as Marx's lifelong collaborator, would do it.

Winning over the best

Over the entire course of the development of capitalism, the ruling class has from time to time won over some of the best and most brilliant leaders of the workers' movement and made them do the bidding of the ruling class. It is one of the sad aspects in the struggle against capitalism.

Yet we can take comfort in the fact that while they have won over so many to the retrograde cause of capitalism through bribery and corruption, the working-class movement in the 19th century won over to its side the very best, brightest and most profound thinker of the time who had grown up in the summits of the ruling class.

Engels came from a relatively rich industrial family, owners of what today would be considered a multinational capitalist corporation. The name of the firm was Ermen and Engels, and it had holdings in both Germany and England. Frederick Engels worked for his father's firm in order to earn money and support the Marx family, but unlike so many others in that position, he never veered from his thoroughly communist outlook.

In that period, the bourgeoisie and particularly the petty bourgeoisie were still at a somewhat progressive stage. Soon the intelligentsia became nothing but apologists for the capitalist system.

Marx and Engels were the last great social thinkers to come from this class. We, the working class, took from the capitalists the best and the very brightest they have ever produced.

The historical world outlook developed by Marx and Engels paves the road to socialist revolution, serving as invincible armor in overturning the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression.

Main menu Yearly menu