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'Before the sunrise’ (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels walking in night London) by Mikhail Dzhanashvili

What did Engels say about revolution?

Originally published: Counterfire by Dragan Plavšić (July 26, 2019)   | 

Engels was a revolutionary democrat and a revolutionary realist, argues Dragan Plavšić

Marx and Engels were above all revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow capitalism, a system they argued was the cause of impoverishing exploitation and wars. For them, revolution was the beating heart that gave life to the body of their ideas. Without it, their ideas would have lost direction and become something very different.

If anti-capitalist revolution is indeed your goal, then you have to take it seriously as an idea if you are to succeed. This entails thinking about revolution in a realistic way and developing the idea of it in the light of historical experience. Engels made an important contribution here.

A key question about revolution to which the young Engels had to find an answer was the crucial one of who would carry it out. He found it when, as a young man in the early 1840s, he came to work for the family firm in Manchester, then the urban centre of the world-leading English textile industry. Here Engels came face to face with the crushing poverty of textile workers and was shocked by what he saw.

As he wrote in his The Condition of the Working Class in England, ‘The proletarian, who has nothing but his two hands, who consumes today what he earned yesterday…and has not the slightest guarantee for being able to earn the barest necessities of life…this proletarian is placed in the most revolting, inhuman position conceivable for a human being.’ Engels wrote with stark realism of the dissolute drunkenness of the workers and how they were driven into stealing, starvation and suicide.

Engels’ realism enabled him to see more clearly than other writers who tended either to pour scorn or sentimentality on the workers. Thus, he recorded how workers became brutalised ‘the moment they bend in patience under the yoke’, but he also recorded how they became transformed when ‘they burn in wrath against the reigning class’ of capitalists. Rather than censure this anger as others did, Engels saw it as ‘proof that the workers feel the inhumanity of their position, that they refuse to be degraded to the level of brutes’. Their transformation before his very eyes led him to the political conclusion that workers would ‘one day free themselves from servitude to the bourgeoisie’.

A close reading of The Condition of the Working Class in England reveals five core ideas about revolution which Marx and Engels were to develop in the coming years into consistent features of their thinking:

  1. Revolution is not something imposed on the workers from the outside by extraneous forces. It is the product of intolerable conditions and the inevitable revolt against them. As Engels put it, ‘A class which bears all the disadvantages of the social order without enjoying its advantages…who can demand that such a class respect this social order?’
  2. Revolution is aimed at the wholesale transformation of society to be carried out by the workers, the only social force with the power and the willingness to effect such a transformation. It is not a question of ameliorating this condition or that, but of workers freeing themselves completely from their ‘servitude to the bourgeoisie’.
  3. Revolution has to be carried out by the workers themselves; they have to ‘free themselves’, as Engels put it simply. He later explained that ‘our notion, from the very beginning, was that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’’. Engels was here quoting the very ‘notion’ Marx had inserted into the Rules of the First International, the organisation he had helped set up in the 1860s to represent workers. Workers cannot sit back and wait to be freed, for if the freedom to be won is to be meaningful to them as workers, it has to be won by them.
  4. Revolution is an experience that will transform workers in the very process of them carrying it out. As Marx and Engels later wrote, ‘the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution…because the class [doing the] overthrowing…can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found itself anew.’ Here we have summarised what Engels witnessed in Manchester–the capacity of workers, though almost broken by oppressive conditions, to transform themselves in the struggle against those conditions.
  5. Revolution is a mass democratic experience, not a conspiracy planned by a secret cabal behind closed doors and somehow staged behind people’s backs. As Engels later wrote, ‘The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must be in on it, must themselves have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul.’

These five core ideas are invaluable, but they are on their own insufficient, as concretely realistic thinking is also needed to determine how best to get to revolution from the non-revolutionary here and now. Here Engels was clear that any political organisation devoted to the goal of revolution had to prioritise looking outwards to society. As he later wrote, ‘In other words, we enter the realm of intelligent political leadership of a broad revolutionary movement that is striving to reach out, without compromising its own politics, as against the wooden drill of a self-pickling sect.’ As a result, ‘in order for the masses to understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required’, including taking part in elections, whenever feasible, to spread the word.

This ‘striving to reach out’ also entails looking to struggles that, though not themselves revolutionary, have the potential to show workers the benefits of struggle and thus the possibility of a deeper, revolutionary transformation. In his later years, this led Engels to support the new union strikes of the 1880s which, as he explained to a friend, were ‘drawing far greater masses into the struggle, shaking up society more profoundly, and putting forward much more farreaching demands’ even as he noted that the strikers ‘themselves do not yet know toward what final goal they are working.’ Nevertheless, vague though their ideas were, they were sufficient ‘to make them elect only downright Socialists.’

These general questions about political organisation and union activity as stepping stones to revolution were not the only ones the older Engels was preoccupied with. In the 1840s, he had concluded that the only way ‘to ensure that the interests of the proletariat prevail’ would be by means of a ‘democratic revolution by force’. However, he and Marx had seen how the multiple revolutions in Europe of 1848 had been crushed by the superior military forces of the state. As standing armies became more and more a typical feature of the modern state in the nineteenth century, Engels had to address the question of whether revolution was still a feasible option given the state’s monopoly control of military power.

Engels’ answer to this question was entirely in the spirit of his core beliefs about revolution. It was the height of foolishness, he argued, to think that the forces of the state could be defeated on their own military terms. After all, they had the guns. Overcoming the state could never be a question of force alone. It had also to be a matter of ‘making the troops yield to moral influences’ by agitating among them so they became ‘more and more infected with socialism’. Future revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution of 1917, would more than bear out the value of this insight.

Engels was a revolutionary democrat and a revolutionary realist. He knew that revolutions could only be successfully made if the great majority was ‘in on it’, not least because this was the surest way of morally influencing the army and ensuring the revolution would be carried out with the minimum of force. He had seen in Manchester the damage capitalism did to people and had concluded that only a revolution could undo it by transforming people while they were carrying it out. This is the kind of wellgrounded faith in people we could do with more of today.


Dragan will be speaking at Marxism and the State on Saturday 27th

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