| Engels | MR Online

200th birth anniversary of Friedrich Engels

Originally published: Ceylon Today on November 27, 2020 by Sumanasiri Liyanage (more by Ceylon Today)  | (Posted Dec 01, 2020)

The birth anniversary of Friedrich Engels, collaborator, co-thinker and a long-time friend of Karl Marx falls tomorrow, 28 November 2020. Having heard of the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov alias Lenin wrote: “The name and life of Engels should be known to every worker… Above all, he taught the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself, substituting science for dreams… Let us always honour the memory of Friedrich Engels – A great fighter and teacher of the proletariat!”

Let me start with a short biography. Engels was the eldest son of a conservative German textile manufacturer who had factories in Germany and England. Reflecting on Engels’s family background, Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx wrote: “Probably no son born in such a family ever struck so entirely different a path from it.” She further added: Friedrich must have been treated by his family as an ugly duckling, but he was in reality a swan. After completing Gymnasium (Secondary school), he wanted to study law and economics, but in 1837 his father had a different idea and took him to his office as an apprentice. The radical views of Engels  had not made him comfortable with business life so to avoid it he joined the military. At the University of Berlin, he theoretically engaged with the group called ‘young Hegelians’. On his way to Manchester to work in his father’s factory, he met Karl Marx for the first time, but Marx failed to recognise his potential as a left thinker. However, his writings from Manchester to radical journals changed Marx’s opinion over him. In fact, those writing were able to direct Marx to a completely different sphere of work. May be, it is not incorrect to say that Engels was a ‘Marxist’ even before Marx!

In Manchester, Engels was exposed to the life of the working class and their working conditions were so harsh that he visited their living quarters that were dismal and bleak. By talking to them, witnessing their living condition and their situation it became the subject of his excellent book, ‘The Condition of the English Working Class’. Mary Burns an Irish working-class woman became his loving companion.  His other two major works at this period includes ‘Outline of a Critique of Political Economy’ and the ‘Principles of Communism’. It is not difficult to see an affinity between the latter and the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels written in 1848.

Engels second meeting with Marx in Paris on his way back to Germany from Manchester was a totally different one as it paved the way for a long friendship a kind that rarely may be seen in human history. They jointly produced the Communist Manifesto, The Holy Family and The German Ideology. After the sudden death of Mary Burns his loving companion, he got married to her sister Lydia Burns. Engels, according to American economist Robert Heilbroner, was tall, fair and an elegant person who liked to fence, ride to hounds and who once swam the Weser four times without a break. Once he walked 300 kilometres to Switzerland. He was fluent in 20 languages. He had a great enjoyment of wine and other bourgeois pleasures like fox hunting and organised regular parties at his place that reportedly went on till two or three o’clock in the morning.

His Contribution to Marxism

Besides the fact that his contribution to Marxism was enormous, until Marx’s death in 1883, Engels opted to play second fiddle to his senior colleague. So, he humbly declared: “What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw farther, and took a broader and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best men of talent. Without him the theory would be far from what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name.”

His main contributions may be listed under four interrelated headings, namely,

Development of historical realism and application of it to real historical events.

Development and defense of dialectical realism.

Linking family and private property with the Marxist theory of state.

Contribution to Ecological Communism

As one may easily note, following Roy Bhaskar, I prefer the word realism for the often-used term, materialism. Nonetheless, his contribution in compilation, editing and preparing for publications of Marx’s the second and the third volumes of ‘Das Kapital’ also known as ‘Capital’ should not be underrated.

Among Engels’s writings, the two books, ‘Dialectics of Nature’ (Dialektik der Natur) and ‘Anti-Duhring’ (Anti-Dühring) , have been subjected to myriad of controversy and critical reading since the publication of History of Class Consciousness by György Lukács. Lukács was critical of Engels’s remarks that dialectics operates beyond history and society so that may be applied to nature as well. On the contrary, Lukács posited that dialectics necessarily involves reflexivity, so the subject- object relations. History and society are made by women and men, so that the dialectics is a science of human praxis and cannot be treated as the general laws of motion. Of course, this is a debatable point and making a conclusion needs deep understanding of both nature and society that the present writer does not possess. However, it is pertinent to note that many well recognised natural scientist stand with Engels and posit that dialectics refers to the general laws of motion so that may be found in nature as well.

Engels and Ecological Communism

Although the debate on the operation of dialectics in nature continues, Engels’s work is very much pertinent today as the entire humankind and the earth system itself are facing a deep ecological crisis that can be attributed to the process of capital accumulation. John Bellamy Foster wrote: “Today, 200 years after his birth, Engels can be seen as one of the foundational ecological thinkers of modern times. If Karl Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift is at the heart of historical-materialist ecology today, it nonetheless remains true that Engels’s contributions to our understanding of the overall ecological problem remain indispensable, rooted in his own deep inquiries into nature’s universal metabolism, which reinforced and extended Marx’s analysis.”

In Anti-Duhring, Engels used a metaphor to mark the present conjuncture. He compared the capitalist class to a locomotive driver under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is too weak to open. Here, he referred to the destructive and regressive nature of the productive forces that are being developed by the capitalist class in the context of what Gramsci called ‘an organic crisis’. Hence, “if the whole of modern society is not to perish,” Engels posited, “a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place.”

Let me end my tribute to Friedrich Engels with a poem written by him while he was a teenager because this poem has had a futuristic vision.

‘The radiance in the West is almost gone.

Patience! A new day waits us – Freedom’s day!

The sun shall mount his ever-shining throne

And Night’s black cares be banished far away.

New flowers shall grow, but not in nursery beds

We raked ourselves and sowed with chosen seeds:

All earth shall be their garden full of light;

All plants shall flourish in far alien lands’.

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.


Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.