| Statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Bishkek Kirghizstan Source Wikicommon cropped from original shared under license CC BY SA 40 | MR Online Statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Bishkek, Kirghizstan. Source: Wikicommon / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

Engels: How North West England shaped an internationalist

Originally published: Counterfire on July 13, 2023 by Kathrine Connelly (more by Counterfire)  | (Posted Jul 15, 2023)

Friedrich Engels’ legacy is inseparable from Karl Marx. That is because, together with Marx, he made fighting capitalism and strengthening working-class organisation his life’s work.

There is a lot we can learn from this nineteenth-century revolutionary socialist. When Engels was alive, capitalism was confined to only a few countries; today it is a global system.

The pollution from rapid industrialisation, which Engels observed in the 1840s made cities unfit for human habitation, now blights the whole planet and threatens human existence.

When Engels was writing about the working class it was, globally, in a minority. Today the working class is in the majority across the world.

Engels’ ideas are more relevant to more people today than they were in his own lifetime.

A turbulent world

Engels was born in Prussia in 1820 into a turbulent world. Thirty years earlier, the French Revolution terrified the old feudal order across Europe.

Crushed from within by the authoritarian regime of Napoléon Bonaparte and without by the European powers who eventually defeated Napoléon on the battlefield in 1815, it nevertheless unleashed ideas about democracy, the rights of man, civil liberties, freedom, and reason, which shook the world.

The social class into which Engels was born meant he was perfectly situated to reap the rewards of the declining old order. His father’s immense wealth came from the vanguard of industrial capitalism, in cotton manufacture.

But Engels was attracted to far more radical ideas of change. In an effort to turn his son into a sober capitalist, his father sent him to manage a branch of the family firm in Manchester—the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Manchester was also the centre of anti-capitalist resistance.


Engels was horrified by the human cost of the Industrial Revolution. He witnessed first-hand the poverty wages paid to the workers who produced all the goods that made Britain the ‘workshop of the world’; he heard about the appalling industrial accidents and long hours that men, women, and children were forced to work. Lack of urban planning and the drive to make a profit saw workers crammed into overcrowded, insanitary housing.

That was when times were good. When the economy went into recession, workers were ‘made redundant’, faced starvation or the dreaded workhouses, and were evicted from their homes. Engels heard the utter complacency of those who profited from this system and their resistance to any regulation.

A newly arrived foreigner in his early twenties, Engels embarked on a highly ambitious project: to write the first book about the entirety of the English working class. The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845) was a powerful study of exploitation, but it was also a book charged with revolutionary meaning.

Capitalism, in massing workers together to co-operate in manufacture, had taught them the power of collective action. Workers were organising to resist the appalling conditions through trade unions and in the Chartist movement, a working-class campaign for political reform. In 1842, the year Engels arrived in Manchester, these two elements combined to organise a general strike.

Marx and Engels

Karl Marx was a revolutionary journalist from Prussia living in Paris when he began a lifelong friendship with Engels in 1844. Engels introduced Marx to the leading working-class activists in England.

At the heart of Marx and Engels’ collaboration were important shared ideals which they developed in their writings. They both rejected the idealist philosophy they had been attracted to in their youth.

Instead of treating thought as something independent of society, they argued that the way society was structured shaped the ideas in people’s heads. This led to the revolutionary conclusion that the way to change ideas was to fight for real, material change.

Their experience of workers’ struggles meant they identified that for all the terrible suffering of the working class, it was incredibly powerful when it acted collectively. And because workers had no interests separate from the rest of society—they owned no factories or banks or landed estates or plantations—a workers’ revolution would achieve what no other form of revolution could. It would have no interest in perpetuating any system of oppression and would emancipate all of society, not just the workers. As Marx and Engels expressed it in their most famous book, The Communist Manifesto (1848), workers had ‘a world to win’.

Understanding that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself’, Marx and Engels dedicated their lives to assisting every effort that could strengthen workers’ organisation and resistance.

They participated in the European 1848 revolutions; as well as contributing to the debates, Engels joined the armed struggle. When this wave of revolutions was defeated, Marx and Engels were forced into exile in England, which lasted the rest of their lives. Engels, who was able to work at the Manchester firm, used that position to fund Marx (and his family) which allowed him to, for example, write Capital.

In the 1860s, they established and were leading members of the International Working Men’s Association, which co-ordinated workers’ struggles across borders. They closely followed the struggle against slavery in the American Civil War and they supported the 1871 Paris Commune, a short-lived workers’ government.

After Marx

After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels made his revolutionary ideas relevant to a new generation of socialists. He oversaw the publication of the volumes of Capital that Marx left unfinished. Engels also wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) from Marx’s research into the origins of women’s oppression.

The last years of Engels’ life saw significant political developments. Workers in Britain’s ‘new unions’ achieved victories on a scale not seen for forty years, while the creation of workers’ parliamentary parties opened up new opportunities and dilemmas. Engels was at the heart of international debates about these developments.

Engels also wrote new introductions to The Communist Manifesto as it was reprinted and translated into different languages. He reiterated its core revolutionary message and sought to make it relevant to new audiences. We should do the same today, never forgetting this great revolutionary’s insistence on the unity of theory and practice.

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