The young Friedrich Engels, born 200 years ago on 28 November 1820, was a troublesome youth for his parents. He persisted in arguing for the rights of the poor, attending meetings of the radical Young Hegelians and contributing to a journal based in the Rhineland edited by an obvious troublemaker called Karl Marx.
In 1842 he met Marx for the first time. A deep lifetime friendship would soon evolve. In the same year his exasperated father packed him off to England, to work in the family firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester, at that time the industrial heart of Victorian Britain. A dose of hard work among those no-nonsense Mancunians would surely knock the liberal-radical stuffing out of the wayward scudder. Or so it was thought.
When Engels arrived, age 22 and hardly overjoyed at the prospect of living in Manchester, its claim to be the workshop of the world was no idle boast. Together with manufacturing of many other kinds, it was the world centre for the production of cotton cloth.
For the workers it was a stinking filthy hole, where thousands toiled long hours in the most appalling conditions imaginable, living in crowded rooms in back-to-back terraced slums, which rarely had any sanitation, running water or light. Child labour was common practice, and diseases such as TB were endemic.
Engels soon met Mary Burns, a fiery radical Irish woman, and they formed a lifelong bond until she died in 1863. Mary was illiterate and, by all accounts, a heavy drinker (Engels himself being no slouch in this department), but she introduced him to Irish politics and showed him round the slums of Manchester, thus providing much of the raw material for Engels’ famous book The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1844. The pair never married.
Engels intended to return to Germany for a time in 1844 but stopped off in Paris and then Brussels to spend time with Marx. That period produced the famous Communist Manifesto and the co-authored German Ideology.
During the latter part of 1848 he was in Germany and volunteered to fight in the revolutionary battles of that year. The revolutionary wave was soon broken and Engels had to escape through Switzerland, making it back to Manchester in November 1849.
Thereafter, Engels was constantly in touch with Marx (in London), helping him financially, exchanging ideas and information, and working with the Chartists and the International Working Men’s Association (First International). In 1870 he moved to London, to be closer to Marx, who was to die in 1883.
After Marx’s death, Engels edited the manuscripts of Volume 2 and 3 of Marx’s Capital, wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and, as he did throughout his life, maintained a lively correspondence with socialists in Europe and America. After Mary’s death, a relationship developed with her sister Lizzie, and the two were married on her deathbed. Engels survived his friend and comrade by 12 years, and his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head.
It is easy to see Engels as the “other one” in the Marx-Engels relationship, but he was always much more than Marx’s financial helper and note-taker.
His work in editing various of Marx’s manuscripts, particularly Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, was a Herculean intellectual effort, not helped by Marx’s appalling handwriting. His own writings such as The Holy Family (1844), The Peasant War in Germany (1850), Anti-Dühring (1878), Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (taken from sections ofAnti-Dühring, 1880) and Dialectics of Nature (unfinished, written 1872-82, published 1925) have a real claim to permanence even if for example The Origin of the Family… has partly been superseded by later developments in anthropology and other sciences.
Some critics seem to “position” Engels as the “good guy” in the Marx-Engels relationship, as if the easier-going Engels would have produced a “lighter”, “happy-clappy” form of socialism than the supposedly dour Marx, poring over tables of economic statistics in the British Museum Library.
Others delight in pointing out that Engels’ life held many contradictions: it was not unknown for him to frequent prostitutes, and he loved fox-hunting. While not excusing any of this, the point surely is that all our lives are lived in some state of contradiction. We are all, in a myriad of different ways, the product of our circumstances and time, of the cultural, social and moral limitations in which we live. This must also be offset with Engels’ advocacy of women’s rights, his internationalism, and his consistent support for Irish self-determination.
When you are next in Manchester go and have a look at his statue in New Street, which was brought over from Ukraine by the artist Phil Collins a few years ago.
And the final word must go to Marx, who, so his son-in-law Paul Lafargue reported, “esteemed Engels as the most learned man in Europe” and “never tired of admiring the versatility of his mind”.