Friedrich Engels: A Great 'Builder of Socialism'

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IR 83, 4th Quarter 1995

100 years ago...

Friedrich Engels: A Great ‘Builder of Socialism’

"Friedrich Engels died in London on 5th August 1895. After the death of his friend Karl Marx (in 1883) (...) Marx and Engels were the first to show that the working class and its demands are the necessary product of the present economic system, which inevitably creates and organises the proletariat at the same time as the bourgeoisie; they showed that humanity will not be delivered from the ills which weigh on it today, by the well-intentioned efforts of generous hearted men, but by the class struggle of the organised proletariat. Marx and Engels were the first to explain, in their scientific works, that socialism is not a chimera, but the final and necessary result of the development of the productive forces of today's society".

With these lines, written a month after the death of Marx's companion, Lenin began a short biography of one of the best militants of the communist struggle.

An exemplary militant life

Born at Barmen in 1820, in what was then the Rhenish province of Prussia, Engels was an example of a militant devoted all his life to the struggle of the working class. He came from a family of industrialists, and could have lived in wealth and comfort without paying any attention to the political struggle. But like Marx, and many other young students revolted by the misery of the world in which they lived, while still young he acquired an exceptional political maturity, in contact with the workers' struggle in Britain, France, and then Germany. It was inevitable that the proletariat should attract a certain number of intellectual elements to its ranks, in this period when it was forming itself as a class, and developing its political struggle.

Engels was always modest about his individual trajectory, pointing out the important contribution of his friend Marx. Nonetheless, at the age of only 25, he acted as a forerunner. In England, he witnessed the catastrophic march of industrialisation and pauperism. He perceived both the promise and the weaknesses of the workers' movement in its beginnings (Chartism). He became aware that the "enigma of history" lay in this despised and unknown proletariat, he went to workers' meetings in Manchester where he saw them attacking Christianity, and laying claim to their right to control their own future.

In 1844, Engels wrote an article for the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher (a review published in Paris by Arnold Ruge, a young democrat, and Marx, who at the time still stood on the terrain of the struggle for democracy against Prussian absolutism), a "Contribution to the critique of political economy". It was this text which opened Marx's eyes to the fundamental nature of the capitalist economy. His work on The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, was to become a reference book for a whole generation of revolutionaries. As Lenin wrote, Engels was thus the first to declare that the proletariat is "not only" a class that suffers, but that the shameful economic situation in which it suffers pushes it irresistibly forwards, and forces it to struggle for its final emancipation. Two years later, it was also Engels who drew up "The Principles of Communism", in the form of a questionnaire, which was to serve as a preliminary sketch for the composition of the world-famous Communist Manifesto, signed jointly by Marx and Engels.

In fact, most of Marx' and Engels' immense contribution to the workers' movement was the fruit of their mutual collaboration. They first really got to know each other in Paris during the summer of 1844. Henceforth, there began a joint work, which lasted all their lives, a rare mutual confidence which was based not just on an exceptional friendship, but on a shared conviction in the historic role of the proletariat and a constant struggle for the party spirit, to win over more and more elements to the revolutionary combat.

From the time they met, Marx and Engels together quickly went beyond their philosophical visions of the world, to devote themselves to this unprecedented historical event: the development of an exploited class, the proletariat, which was also a revolutionary class. A class all the more revolutionary in that it could acquire a clear "class consciousness", rid of the prejudices and self-mystifications that weighed on past revolutionary classes like the bourgeoisie. This common reflection produced two books: The Holy Family, published in 1844, and The German Ideology, which was written between 1844 and 1846 bit only published in the 20th century. In these books, Marx and Engels settled accounts with the philosophical conceptions of the "young Hegelians", their first comrades in struggle who had proved incapable of going beyond a bourgeois, or petty bourgeois vision of the world. At the same time, they set out a materialist and dialectical vision of history, which broke both with idealism (which considers that "the world is governed by ideas"), but also with vulgar materialism, which recognises no active role for consciousness. Marx and Engels considered that "when theory takes hold of the masses, then it becomes a material force". And the two friends, utterly convinced of this unity between being and consciousness, were never to separate the proletariat's theoretical from its practical combat, nor their own participation from either.

Contrary to the image which has often been given by the bourgeoisie, neither Marx nor Engels were ever "savants in an ivory tower", cut off from reality and the practical struggle. The Manifesto which they wrote in 1847 was in fact called the Manifesto of the Communist Party, and was to serve as the programme of the Communist League, an organisation which was preparing for the struggle that was brewing. In 1848, a series of bourgeois revolutions broke out across the European continent. Marx and Engels took part actively, in order to contribute to the emergence of conditions which would allow the political and economic development of the proletariat. Returning to Germany, they published a daily - the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which became an instrument of the struggle. More concretely still, Engels joined the revolutionary troops fighting in the state of Baden.

After the defeat of this European revolutionary wave, both Marx and Engels were pursued by the all police of Europe for their participation in the struggle, which forced them into exile in Britain. Marx settled for good in London, while Engels worked until 1870 in the family business in Manchester. Exile did not for a moment put an end to their participation in the class struggle. They continued their activity in the Communist League until 1852, when they announced its dissolution to prevent it degenerating as a result of the reflux in struggle.

In 1864, in the midst of an international recovery in workers' struggles, they took an active part in the formation of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA). Marx became a member of the IWA's General Council, to be joined in 1870 by Engels when he managed to escape from his job in Manchester. It was a crucial moment in the life of the IWA, and the two friends took part side by side in the struggles of the International: the Paris Commune of 1871, the solidarity with its refugees (on the General Council, it was Engels organised the material assistance given to the Communards who emigrated to London), and above all the defence of the IWA against the activities of Bakunin's Alliance for Socialist Democracy. In September 1872, Marx and Engels were present at the Hague Congress which blocked the way against the Alliance, and it was Engels who wrote most of the report, which the Congress had entrusted to the General Council, on the Bakuninists' intrigues.

The destruction of the Commune dealt a brutal blow to the European proletariat, and the IWA - the "old International" as Marx and Engels called it thereafter - died in 1876. Nonetheless, the two comrades did not retire from the political strugle. They followed closely the formation and development of socialist parties in most European countries, and Engels continued to do so energetically after Marx' death in 1883. They paid special attention to the movement developing in Germany, and which became a beacon for the international proletariat. They intervened against all the confusions that weighed on the party, as can be seen from the Critique of the Gotha Programme (written by Marx in 1875), and the Critique of the Erfurt Programme (by Engels in 1891).

Engels, like Marx, was thus above all a militant of the proletariat, and an active participant in its struggle.

At the end of his life, Engels confided that nothing in it had been so exciting as the struggle for militant propaganda, and he spoke especially of the pleasure of taking part in an illegal daily publication: the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1848, and then the Sozialdemokrat during the 1880s, when the party was subjected to the rigours of Bismarck's anti-socialist laws.

The collaboration between Marx and Engels was particularly fruitful. Even when they were separated, or when their organisations were dissolved, they continued to struggle, with comrades faithful like them to the vital work of the fraction during periods of reflux, keeping alive the minority's activity through a mass of correspondance.

It is thanks to this collaboration that we now have the major theoretical works of both Marx and Engels. Those written by Engels were in large part the result of his permanent exchange of ideas with Marx. This is the case with the Anti-Dhring (which was published in 1878, and proved an essential instrument in training socialist militants in Germany), and with Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), which sets forward with great precision the communist conception of the state that later revolutionaries were to take as a foundation (notably Lenin in State and Revolution). Even Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy, published after Marx' death, could not have been written without the two friends' joint reflection ever since their youth.

Likewise, without Engels' contribution Marx' great work Capital would never have seen the light of day. As we have seen, it was Engels in 1844 who first showed Marx the need to deal with the critique of political economy. Thereafter, every step forward, every hypothesis contained in Capital was the object of long correspondance: Engels, for example, was able to provide first hand information on the functioning of a capitalist enterprise in which he was directly involved. Engels' permanent encouragement and advice played a large part in getting the book's first part published in 1867. Finally, after Marx's death, it was Engels who worked to bring together a vast mass of rough notes for publication as books 2 and 3 of Capital (published in 1885 and 1894).

Engels' and the IInd International

Although Engels never claimed to be anything but second fiddle, he nonetheless left the proletariat a profound and very readable theoretical work. But also, and above all after Marx' death he made it possible for the "party spirit", a continuity of organisational principles and experience, to be transmitted right up to the IIIrd International.

Engels took part in the foundation of the Communist League in 1847, and then of the IWA in 1864. After the dissolution of the Ist International, Engels played an important part in maintaining its principles during the constitution of the IInd International to which he gave untiring and critical advice. He had considered the Internationa;'s foundation premature, but to combat the reappearance of intriguers like Lassalle, or the resurgence of anarchistic opportunism, he threw all his weight in the balance to defeat opportunism at the international founding congress in Paris in 1889. In fact, until the day he died Engels did his utmost to struggle against the opportunism which was raising its head again especially in the German social-democracy, against the influence of petty-bourgeois spinelessness, against the anarchist element which threatened to destroy all organisational life, and against the reformist wing, increasingly seduced by the siren song of bourgeois democracy.

At the end of the last century, the bourgeoisie tolerated the development of universal suffrage in Germany in particular, and the number of socialist deputies gave an impression of strength within the legal framework, to the opportunist and reformist elements within the party. Bourgeois historiography and the enemies of Marxism have used Engels' - partly justified - declarations against the outdated "barricade mentality" to give the impression that the old militant had also become a pacifist reformist [1]. In particular, in 1895, his preface to Marx' texts on The class struggles in France has been used to show that Engels thought that the time for revolution was passed. It is true that this introduction contained formulations that were incorrect [2], but the published text had precious little to do with the original. In fact, it was first cut by Kautsky to avoid legal problems, then expurgated by Wilhelm Liebknecht. Engels wrote to Kautsky to express his indignation at finding in Vorw„rts an extract of his introduction which made him "seem like a partisan of legality at all costs" (1st April, 1895). Two days later, he complained to Lafargue: "Liebknecht has just played my a fine trick. He has taken from my introduction to Marx's articles on Frnace 1848-50, everything that could serve to support his tactic of peace and non-violence at all costs, which it has pleased him to preach for a while now".

Despite Engels' many warnings, the IInd International's domination by the opportunism of Bernstein, Kautsky and Co was to lead to its breakup in 1914, in the storm of social-chauvinism. But this International was still an arena of revolutionary combat, contrary to the denials of our modern storytellers of the GCI variety [3]. Its political gains, the internationalism asserted at its congresses (in particular at Stuttgart in 1907 and Basle in 1912), and its organisational principles (defence of centralisation, combat against intrigues and young climbers etc) were not lost for the left wing of Engels' International, since Lenin, Luxemburg, Pannekoek and Bordiga, amongst many others, were to raise anew the revolutionary standard that the old fighter had so fiercely defended to the end of his days.

Marx's daughter, Eleanor, paid a deserved homage to Engels the man and the militant: "There is only one thing that Engels never forgives: falseness. A man who is untrue to him, or worse still untrue to the party, can look for no pity from Engels. For him, these are unforgivable sins. Engels does not know any other sins... Engels, who is the most precise man in the world, who more than anyone has a lively sense of duty and above all discipline towards the party, is not in the least a puritan. Nobody has his ability to understand everything, and yet nobody forgives so easily our little weaknesses". As she wrote these lines, Eleanor did not know that Engels was dying. The socialist press of the day, when it published this letter, saluted the memory of the great man: "A man has died, who stayed in the background, when he could have been in the limelight. The idea, his idea, is upright, and alive everywhere, more alive than ever, defying all attacks, thanks to the weapons which, with Marx, he helped to arm it. We will no longer hear this valiant blacksmith's hammer ring on the anvil; the good workman has fallen; the hammer has dropped from his powerful hands to the ground, and will perhaps remain there a long time; but the weapons he forged are still there, solid and bright. Not many will be able to forge new ones, but what we can and must do, is not to let rust those he has left us; on this condition, there will win for us the victory for which they were made".


[1] Bourgeois historiography is not alone in trying to show Engels in political decline at the end of his life. Our modern "Marxologues" of the Maximilien Rubel variety accuse him of both deforming and idolising Marx. The result of these slanders, if not their aim, is to stifle the voice of Engels, and what it represents: faith in the revolutionary struggle.

[2] During the formation of the German Communist Party (KPD) on 31st December 1918, Rosa Luxemburg rightly criticised these formulations of Engels, and showed how they had been grist to the reformists' mill in their effort to banalise marxism. But she pointed out at the same time that "Engels did not live long enough to see the results, the practical consequences of the use that was made of his preface (...) But I am sure of one thing: knowing the works of Marx and Engels, knowing the authentic, living, unadulterated revolutionary spirit that breathes from all their writing, all their teachings, we can be convinced that Engels would have been the first to protest against the excesses that have been the result of parliamentarism pure and simple (...) Engels, and Marx if he had lived, would have been the first to react violently against them, to have held back, braked the vehicle to prevent it getting stuck in the mire" (Rosa Luxemburg, Speech on the Programme). At the time, Luxemburg did not know that Engels had already protested vigorously over this preface. Moreover, we can point out to those who enjoy setting Engels against Marx that the latter also said things which were widely exploited by the reformists. For example, less than two years after the Paris Commune he could declare: "...we do not deny that there are countries like America, Britain, and if I knew your institutions better I would add Holland, where the workers can reach their goal by peaceful means (...)" (Speech at the closure of the IWA's Hague Congress, 8th September 1872). All the revolutionaries, even the greatest, have made mistakes. While it is normal that the Stalinist, social-democrat or Trotskyist falsifiers should have an interest in raising these mistakes to the level of dogma, it is down to communists to recognise them, on the basis of their predecessors' work in its entirety.


[3] On the defence of the proletarian nature of the IInd International, see our article on "The continuity of the proletariat's political organisations: the class nature of social-democracy", in International Review no50.

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: