Ernest Belfort Bax

Frederick Engels

(24 August 1895)

Frederick Engels, Justice, 24th August 1895, p.4 & 6 (Obituary).
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The leader whose loss the whole Socialist world is now deploring, was born, at Barman in Rheinish Prussia in November, 1820. Educated at the Gymnasium of that town, he was sent by his father, when twenty-two years of age, to Manchester to look after the cotton-spinning business in which Herr Engels senior, had a share. While here young Frederick made that thorough investigation into the conditions of working classes which determined the course of his after life, and which resulted its the publication of his book, the Condition of the working class in England. In 1844 he left London and met Marx in Brussels, and from this time dates their memorable friendship. Soon afterwards, Marx Engels joined an international body started sometime previously, called the “League of the Righteous.” It seems to have been a Radical and Utopian, Socialist organisation, and it was the aim of Marx and Engels to bring it into the paths of scientific Socialism. This was effected in 1847 in London, when it was reconstituted as the Communist League, and for it was written the famous manifesto. The following year, on the outbreak of the Revolution, Engels returned to Germany, taking part with Marx in the work of the Neue Rhenisch Zeitung, published at Cologne, and subsequently girding on his sword and joining the insurgents in Baden. Driven across the Swiss frontier on the suppression of the insurrection, many of the refugees made their permanent home in Switzerland. Engels however, returned to his desk, in Manchester in 1850, where he remained in business for twenty years. In 1870 he retired, and came to London to live near his friend Marx, and thenceforward his whole time was occupied in study and with Party work. His celebrated polemical work against Dühring was published in 1878. During the seventies he also wrote his book on the Peasants’ War, with the recasting of which he was engaged at the time of his death, and a number of shorter essays and pamphlets. It was he who virtually led the Marx party at the Hague Congress in 1872,.when, as he stated in his closing address at the Zurich Congress, the two friends had decided that they could no longer take the responsibility of continuing the “International” in the then position of political affairs. In 1884, a little more than a year after the death of Marx, Engels produced his Origin of the Family. Besides his great work, the editing the third volume of Capital, he has since contributed from time to time to the party press. Among his last writings were two historical articles in the Neue Zeit, on the origin of Christianity, and two articles on the impossibility, in view of modern developments in the art of war, of further successful revolts on the old lines, in the same periodical. For a quarter of a century, but more especially since the death of Marx, Engels’ house in Regent’s Park Road has been the Mecca of the revolutionists of all countries.

It was in the spring of 1883, shortly after Marx’s death, that I was invited by Engels to make his acquaintance. From that time forward I continued visit at the well-known house in Regent’s Park Road. Naturally the changes Engels had witnessed both in England and on the continent during his long life, of themselves furnished enough topics of amusing conversation. In the early forties when beards were regarded as “eccentric” he would relate how taking a walk abroad on a Sunday morning in Manchester would anon be fraternally saluted by a bearded man. These were the last survivors of the sect of Johanna Southcote, one of whose practices was to let the beard grow as a token of the approaching advent of the Messiah, and who tools the bearded Socialist and Atheist for one of their own. On another occasion, Engels would relate, as further illustrating the condition of England in the earlier decades that on going to a midday Sunday dinner at the house of an English acquaintance, and the inevitable question arising what church or chapel had` been attended in the morning, he (Engels) remarked that he had been for a walk in the country, and that he regarded this as the best way of spending his Sunday mornings. His host, looked surprised, and observed, – “You seem to hold peculiar religious views, Mr. Engels – somewhat Socinian, I think!” Somewhat Socinian was, of course, the extreme of religious heterodoxy which a man laying any claim to “respectability” could possibly be suspected of professing at that time. But the great colleague of Marx as “somewhat Socinian” is sufficiently amusing!

Engels was well acquainted with Feargus O’Connor, and contributed to the Northern Star. He had a high opinion of many of the Chartist leaders, as well as of the movement itself. Of the prominent men, the one he thought least of was Bronterre O’Brien, who, in spite of his having in some respects a wider range than the others, had less grip of the meaning of economic facts than either O’Connor or Jones. Accordingly his book, is on the whole, the least valuable of the movement. Engels always seemed to have a certain regard for the earlier England of the century, the Chartist England of the forties, before the introduction of salad oil as he used to say. He thought that with all the advantages of increased intercourse with the continent, the England of the earlier period of the great industry, had in spite of its narrowness, a certain sturdiness and directness of character which one does not find to-day Engels was always the best of company and a host of the most unconstrained geniality. In private life he called the “General,” in allusion to the military episodes of his career and to his extensive studies in military matters. All who belonged to the circle accustomed to meet at the “General’s” on Sunday will, I am sure, as long as they live, bear in remembrance the warm and kindly greeting, and the bright emphatic criticism of current topics of party interest which followed.

Originally in favour of the Independent Labour Party, latterly Engels condemned the tactics and distrusted much of the personnel of the party. Personally, he was attracted by John Burns, and without approving much of his later action found an excuse for it in the difficulties of his situation, and thought that some of our comrades were inclined to be too hard on him, and were by their hostility kicking him down the slope of Avernus.

Of all the present English working-class leaders personally known to him, I think I am not wrong in saying that Will Thorne was the greatest favourite with Engels. His conduct of a strike in the north some years ago was more than once referred to by our lost comrade as masterly. With all the leading German comrades Engels was, of course, on terms of intimate friendship. Bebel’s ability as leader he naturally held in high esteem; otherwise his chief drawback lay, he said, in an insufficient acquaintance with other than German conditions, and hence a tendency to view things from a too exclusively German point of view. Before leaving the subject of “persons” I should perhaps mention that of the two of our English comrades against whom, unfortunately, Frederick Engels had conceived a strong personal prejudice, on grounds which to me seemed incomprehensively inadequate, one he had never met at all and the other, I believe, only once for a few minutes. Had Frederick Engels, as we all hoped, lived even but a short time longer there is every reason to believe that the praiseworthy efforts of a friend who stood very near him to bring about a conciliatory interview would, at least in the first of the two cases mentioned (and that the most important from a party point of view) have been crowned with success.

Our deceased comrade was a man of strong emotions and vehement personal sympathies and antipathies, capable of the strongest and most enduring personal attachments as well as aversions. His liability to sudden accessions of irascibility was, he told me, one inherited from his father. It is a mistake to suppose that Engels was really bitter or ill-natured in controversy, as has been sometimes represented. He would always get keen and excited in discussing even small points of difference, and many a “round” of this kind have I had with him myself, especially on matters of practical policy which naturally engender heat, but have never found any alteration in his friendship after it was over. The last time that I saw him – little more than two months ago – I shall always remember the animated debate we had over the supper table on topics ranging from the SDF policy to the economical condition of Germany at the close of the Middle Ages. There seemed all the old fire still there, and I little thought it was the last time we should meet. The telegram announcing the sad news (which arrived during a five days’ absence from Zurich) was indeed a painful surprise, so confidently had I hoped that the “General” would at least live to see his eightieth year past.

Of Frederick Engels’ varied erudition and intellectual interests it is unnecessary to speak. His labours for Socialism were unique, and will be held in undying memory. He has now rested from these labours, and in a sense to which it falls to the lot of few to have it said, we Socialists can confidently affirm – “his works shall follow him.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 26.5.2004