Why should a mid-19th century political activist be of interest to us today? What relevance can ideas from a century and a half ago have in today’s world of globalisation, environmental crisis and increasing domination by transnational corporations?
The name of Friedrich Engels is invariably invoked in the same breath as that of Karl Marx, but who is aware of Engels’ own contribution to the political philosophy of what we today term ‘Marxism’?
After Marx’s death, in typically self-effacing manner, he said of himself, ‘All my life I did what I was made for, that is playing second fiddle and I believe I acquitted myself tolerably well. And I was happy in having so excellent a first violin as Marx’.
History is invariably unkind to those who play second fiddle. Numerous books, pamphlets and essays have been written about Marx, but biographical studies of Engels and his contribution to ‘Marxist’ thought have been, until relatively recently, few and far between.
Although he has been much overshadowed by his more famous comrade, the two men and their thinking are inextricably linked.
Since their early twenties a lifetime of discussions, correspondence and collaboration had honed their thinking into a hardly distinguished whole. Much of what they both wrote after their first meeting in Paris in 1844, was the result of close collaboration and it is often difficult if not impossible to unravel which were Engels’ and which were Marx’s words.
During their exile in Britain they corresponded with each other daily, often several times a day. The two men formulated a body of thought, a philosophy, that history has since termed ‘Marxism’, even though Marx himself rejected the term.
But why should Marxism — a 19th century philosophical theory — be of interest or relevance to us today?
Both Marx and Engels lived during the culmination of the British Industrial Revolution and became aware of its horrors, injustice and inhumanity. Both felt acutely that this did not and could not represent the high point of civilisation.
Human beings deserved better and had the ability to create a more just and happier world.
At the same time they realised that, as Marx succinctly put it, up to now "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it". This observation led them both to research history in order to understand how societies emerged and evolved.
They attempted to establish a scientific approach to understanding social development, to discover the laws determining human history.
Although they were both very much motivated by their rejection of the form of society in which they lived and by a humanitarian concern for their fellow human beings exploited by an inhuman system, they realised that wishful thinking and the desire for socialist utopias was not the answer. They rejected the ideas of the socialist utopians, seeking a more solid foundation for the struggle for social transformation.
It was Engels who first nudged Marx into taking economics seriously and recognising it as the key to understanding history and societal development.
Running the family business of Ermen & Engels in Manchester and his first-hand experience of how working people were exploited and the terrible conditions under which they worked and lived, Engels was able to give Marx the benefit of that.
His first solo book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), written as a 24-year-old in 1844, became a classic. It provides us with the most vivid description of life in the industrial north of England at that time.
So what can way say about Engels’ specific legacy as distinct from Marx’s own?
From the mid-1850s onwards, Engels was acknowledged as the undisputed leader, alongside Marx, of the burgeoning socialist revolutionary movement in Europe. He was a man of action and intellect, and fought with a small revolutionary force in the hills of Germany during the 1848 revolution.
He was also a pioneering writer, journalist and pamphleteer.
Marx and Engels felt on the same wavelength from the moment of their first meeting and formed a symbiotic and collaborative relationship that is probably unique in history. They became intimate friends and collaborated on almost everything they did in connection with the international workers’ movement.
Engels made a significant contribution not only through his own writings, but to many that he and Marx published jointly. It was Engels who completed the first draft of the Communist Manifesto.
His contribution to Marxist philosophy through his own works, like Anti-Dühring (which includes his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific), Dialectics of Nature, and his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, are all still today inspiring reads.
In his biography of Marx, Isiah Berlin writes that he found the most readable sections — published separately under the title Socialism: Utopian and Scientific — "the best brief autobiographical appreciation of Marxism by one of its creators. Written in Engels's best vein," Berlin was of the view that it "had a decisive influence on both Russian and German Socialism".
For the 21 years he spent with the family firm of Ermen & Engels in Manchester Engels was obliged to lead a Jekyll and Hyde existence: one life as a respectable middle-class businessperson and the other as a semi-conspiratorial militant. This must be a rare example of a businessperson serving Mammon by day and conspiring for his downfall by night.
Alongside Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels is perhaps best remembered today for his ground-breaking book The Origin of the Family, Property and the State, in which he examines the development of human societies and how private property leads to class differentiation and oppression.
In this work, he was also one of the first to show how the emergence of private property led to the oppression of women and the negative impact of this on social wellbeing. In this sense, he could be considered a pioneering feminist and his work did indeed have a strong influence on the 20th century feminist movement.
In Dialectics of Nature, Engels devoted a separate chapter, titled, "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" to demonstrating how the use of hands in tool-making became a social undertaking and the basis for human co-operation and social progress.
In his later years, together with Marx, he began looking at agricultural processes and became very much aware of the environmental impact of industrialisation. While it would be an exaggeration to call either of them pioneering environmentalists, this early interest shows a growing awareness of emerging environmental issues.
Engels had undoubtedly read the works of his famous compatriot, Alexander von Humboldt, who had already raised the issue of industrialised agriculture and its probable impact on the natural world.
Engels, perhaps even more so than Marx, believed that the philosophy of dialectical materialism which they had jointly developed, could be applied not only to society but equally to the world at large. Marxism is of particular relevance to environmentalists, because it treats the universe holistically and recognises that everything is interlinked in a dialectical manner.
In an attempt to demonstrate this, Engels began a serious study of the natural sciences.
He wrote most of the manuscript for Dialectics of Nature between 1872 and 1882, but it remained unpublished during his lifetime. The mid 19th century was a time of revolutionary change in the scientific world. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839), followed by On the Origin of Species (1859), together with Charles Lyell’s parallel discoveries in the geological sphere had shaken the foundations of religious belief and a Christian interpretation of life and nature as fixed entities.
Today much of what Engels wrote about science is outdated and often no longer applicable. But what is of particular interest is not how factually correct it still is, but the methodology he used to approach such a vast and daunting subject matter.
So where does all this lead in terms of evaluating Engels’ legacy? Even a cursory reading of his works leaves one in no doubt that he was a profound thinker and that he made a considerable contribution to the debate about socialism and social transformation.
After Marx died, he was widely accepted on the left as the leading intellectual and guide for socialist politics in the world. His life deserves a more appropriate recognition than it has received.
In reading Engels’ works today, one needs to remember that his ideas were profoundly shaped by the early Victorian industrial world in which he lived. And while his philosophical ideas still reverberate and have relevance for us today, we can’t expect ideas born a century and a half ago to be as fresh and relevant as they were at the time.
As both Marx and Engels teach us, history and the history of ideas do not stand still and have to be seen and understood within the context of continuous change. While we can still find inspiration and indeed important ideas and guides to a scientific approach to understanding society in Engels’ writings, we should not expect ready answers to all our contemporary problems.
Although we still live very much in a capitalist world, as he and Marx did, ours is very different to theirs, even if the underlying functioning of the system is the same. We have to see their ideas as a basis on which we ourselves have to continually build, as building materials, some which have to be discarded, others adapted and incorporated.
Today we have to see Engels’ contribution as part of an ongoing process in the evolution of ideas. Marxism, just like any other "-ism", is far from being the final declaration of truth, the final word on the theory of social development. And both men would have been the first to underline that maxim.
Engels and Marx were the first to demonstrate the key role of economics in the historical process – something to which most historians today at least pay lip-service. They developed the key methodology of historical materialism, which is a vital tool in helping us better understand our own history.
The central tenet of Marxism — class conflict as the chief motor of social change — is arguably still a useful tool in helping us understand and analyse societies in their process of development, but it is by no means the only factor driving social change.
Without that understanding our present can make no sense and our future is, as Fidel Castro put it: "like wandering in a dense forest without a compass". Marx and Engels provided us with a compass — we just need to use it if we are to successfully forge a better future.
The best way we can properly celebrate the bicentenary of Engels’ birth and give due recognition to his life and ideas is to emulate his passionate commitment to a socialist transformation of our own society and be unafraid of our own creative thinking, not view him or Marx as iconic Biblical figures to be venerated and slavishly followed.
[John Green is the author of a biography of Friedrich Engels: A Revolutionary Life (Artery Publications 2008) and a recent biography of the German communist Willi Münzenberg: Willi Münzenberg – fighter against fascism and Stalinism (Routledge 2019).]