Great European of the Week: Friedrich Engels

It is said that every great thinker needs an editor. This is typically how Friedrich Engels has been viewed in history – as the St Paul to the Christ of Karl Marx, codifying and explicating orthodox Marxism for generations of revolutionary socialists. Yet there is much more to Engels’ life than forming a bridge between the First International and the October Revolution.

Engels was both Marx's posthumous editor and a great thinker in his own right.

Engels was both Marx’s posthumous editor and a great thinker in his own right.

Engels was born on 28th November 1820 into, like many 19th Century radicals, a rising bourgeois family of industrialists. His trip to Manchester in 1842 resulted in one of the great founding works of sociology The Condition of the English Working Class, which acted as a major influence on the Marxist critique of capitalism. As with Marx, who lived in Hampstead and eventually composed Capital there, the Britain of the day proved a more direct inspiration for Leftist politics than Germany.

Living the other side of a Soviet experiment that degenerated into centralised bureaucracy and ideological terror, it might seem strange to us now that Engels and Marx were not originally economists but vibrant social philosophers and critics. The pair wrote for and founded a number of intellectual journals in their younger years (famously working from the principles of G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach), and completed a number of seminal pieces including ‘On the Question of Free Trade’ and ‘England’s Seventeenth-Century Revolution’. The most famous of these coincided with the 1848 revolutions and has gone down in history as one of the major works of political theory – The Communist Manifesto.

1848 was a watershed in European politics, the final split between the liberal and socialist factions that had been widening since the French Revolution. After this date, Engels and Marx turned away from philosophy proper and towards the social sciences, developing their main theories on labour, exploitation and emancipation and involving themselves in organisations dedicated to radical change – most notably the International Workingmen’s Association, later known as the First International.

After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels set about compiling and editing his collected works. It is this ‘Engelian’ Marx who became the ideological Messiah of the 20th Century socialist states, having foreseen the laws and direction of world history and left the mission of changing the world to the international proletariat. It is certainly true the Engels is closer than Marx to the crimes perpetrated in the name of communist utopia, but there is nevertheless a clear line that divides him from the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Today, Engels is to us a great sociologist and economist, passionate social reformer and uncompromising critic of political injustice.

Image: “Friedrich Engels” courtesy of postdam via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons 2.0

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