Franz Mehring

An Unusual Friendship

(May 1919)

Originally Published: Class Struggle, New York, May 1919.
Republished: New International, Vol. IX No. 5, May 1943, pp. 158–160.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The victory of Marx’s career was not only due to the man’s enormous power. According to all human probability, he would have succumbed sooner or later, if he had not found in Engels a friend, of whose self-sacrificing fidelity we have had no accurate picture until the publication of the correspondence of the two men.

No other such spectacle is afforded in all recorded history. Couples of friends, of historical importance, are found throughout history, and German history has its examples also. Frequently their lifework is so closely interwoven that it is difficult to decide which accomplishment belongs to each one of them. But always there has been a persistent remnant of individual obstinacy or stubbornness, or perhaps only an instinctive reluctance to surrender one’s own personality, which, in the words of the poet, “is the highest blessing of the children of men.” After all, Luther saw in Melanchton only a chicken-livered scholar, while Melanchton regarded Luther as a coarse peasant. And in the correspondence of Goethe and Schiller, anyone with sound senses can discern the secret lack of attunement between the great privy councillor and the small court councillor. There is no trace of this ultimate human weakness in the friendship of Marx and Engels: the more their thoughts and labors become interwoven, the more each one of them remained a full man, complete in himself.

Their exteriors were quite different. Engels, a blond Teuton of tall stature, of English manners, as an observer once said of him, always well dressed, with a bearing that was rigid with the training not only of the barracks, but also of the counting-house. With six clerks, he said, he would organize a branch of the administration a thousand times more simple and efficient than with sixty government councillors, who cannot even write legibly and get your books all balled up, so that the Devil himself can make nothing of them. A member of the Manchester Stock Exchange, perfectly respectable in the business dealings and the amusements of the English bourgeoisie, its fox-hunts and its Christmas parties, he was yet a tireless mental worker and fighter, who, in a little house on the outskirts of the city held his treasure concealed, his little Irish girl, in whose arms he would refresh himself whenever he tired of the human turmoil in the world without.

Marx, on the other hand, short, thick-set, with flashing eyes and a lion’s mane of ebon hue, betraying his Semitic origin; of careless exterior, a father whose family cares alone would be sufficient to keep him away from the social life of the great city; so intensely devoted to consuming intellectual labor that he has hardly the time to gulp down a hasty dinner and uses up his bodily strength to all hours of the night; a tireless thinker, to whom thought is a supreme pleasure; in this respect a genuine successor of Kant, of Fichte, and particularly of Hegel, whose sentence he loved to repeat: “Even the most criminal thought of a scoundrel is more sublime and more magnificent than the miracles of the celestial sphere,” but differing from them in that his thoughts inexorably drive him to action: he was unpractical in small matters but very practical in large matters; far too helpless to arrange a petty household, but incomparably capable in the business of recruiting and leading an army that was to revolutionize the world.

How They Supplemented Each Other

If it is true that “the style is the man,” we must also note their differences as writers. Each in his way was a master of language, a linguistic genius, with a mastery of many foreign languages and even of individual dialects. In this field Engels was even more remarkable than Marx, but whenever writing in his mother-tongue, even in his letters and of course in his writings, he exercises a most austere care to keep the language free from all foreign admixture of word and phrase, without falling, however, into the vagaries of the patriotic linguistic purists. He wrote with ease and lucidity, always in a style so pellucid that you looked right down to the bottom of the current of his animated speech.

Marx’s style was at once more careless and more difficult. In his youthful letters there is still apparent, as in those of Heine, a condition of struggle with the language, and in the letters of his later years, particularly after his settlement in England, he began to make use of a picturesque jargon of German, English and French, all mixed up. In his published writings, also, there is an over-liberal use of foreign words, and there is no lack of Gallicisms and Anglicisms, yet he is so distinctly a master of the German language that he cannot be translated without serious loss. Once when Engels had read a chapter by Marx in a French translation, even after Marx had revised the translation, it seemed to Engels that the vigor and sap and life had disappeared. Goethe once wrote to Frau von Stein: “In metaphors I am ready to stand comparison with the proverbs of Sancho Panza.” Marx could well bear comparison with the greatest of the world’s adepts in figures of speech, with Lessing, Goethe, Hegel, so full of life and vigor is his language.

He had fully absorbed Lessing’s statement that a perfect representation requires a fusion of image and conception, as closely joined as man and woman, and the university pedants have gotten square with him for this, from Father Wilhelm Roscher down to the youngest fledgling of a Privatdozent, by accusing him of being incapable of making himself understood except in an extremely vague way, “patched up with a liberal use of figurative language.” Marx never exhausted the questions which he attacked beyond the point of enabling the reader to begin a fruitful train of thought; his speech is like the dancing of the waves over the purple depths of the sea.

Engels as Collaborator

Engels always saw in Marx a superior spirit; he never wished to play anything but second fiddle by his side. Yet he never was a mere interpreter and assistant, but always a collaborator of independent activity, a kindred spirit, though not of equal size. In the early days of their friendship, Engels played, in one important field, rather the role of a giver than of a receiver, and twenty years later Marx wrote to him: “You know that all ideas come to me too late, and that, in the second place, I always follow in your tracks.” With his somewhat light equipment, Engels was able to move about more freely, and even though his glance was sharp enough to distinguish the decisive features of a question or of a situation, it did not penetrate far enough to review at once all the conditions and corollaries with which even the scantiest decision is often burdened. For a man of action this defect is even an advantage, and Marx never made a political decision without first calling upon Engels for advice, and Engels was usually able to hit the nail on the head.

Accordingly, the advice which Marx asked from Engels was not as satisfactory in questions of theory as in questions of politics. In theory Marx was usually the better of the two. And he was absolutely inattentive to such advice as Engels would often give him, in order to impel him to terminate his labors on his great scientific masterpiece: “Be a little less severe on yourself in the matter of your own productions; they are far too good for the public. The main thing is to have it finished and to get it out; the defects that you still see, the asses will never discover.” It was a characteristic bit of Engels advice, and it was just as characteristic of Marx to ignore it.

It is clear from the above that Engels was better fitted for a journalistic career than Marx; “a real walking encyclopedia” – so Marx once described him to a mutual friend, “capable of work at any hour of the day or night, drunk or sober, swift with his pen and alert as the devil.” It seems that both, after the cessation of the Neue Rheinische Revue, in the autumn of 1850, had still in mind the issuing of another journal in common, to be printed in London; at least, in December 1853, Marx wrote to Engels: “If we – you and I – had started our business as English correspondents in time, you would not now be condemned to office-work in Manchester, nor I to my debts.” Engels’ choice of a position of clerk in his father’s firm, in preference to the prospects of this “business,” was probably due to his consideration for the hopeless situation of Marx, and to a hope of better times in the future, and certainly not with the object of devoting himself permanently to the “damned business.” In the spring of 1854, Engels again considered the desirability of returning to London for literary work, but this was the last time; it must have been about this time that he made up his mind to assume the cursed burden for good, not merely in order to be of assistance to his friend, but in order thus to preserve the party’s best mental asset. Only with this motivation could Engels make the great sacrifice, and Marx accept; both the offer and the acceptance required a great spirit.

And before Engels became a partner in the firm some years later, he cannot exactly be said to have trod a path of roses, but from the first day of his stay at Manchester he aided Marx and never ceased aiding him. An unending stream of one-pound, five-pound, ten-pound, later even hundred-pound notes began to flow toward London. Engels never lost his patience, even though it was often sorely tried by Marx and his wife, who had no over-great supply of domestic wisdom. He forgot the amount of a note and appeared unpleasantly surprised to learn of it when the note fell due. Slight also was his concern when, on the occasion of another general clean-up of the domestic economy, Mrs. Marx, through misplaced considerateness, concealed a large item and began paying it off by stinting with her household money, thus starting the old trouble over again, with the best of all intentions; on this occasion Engels allowed his friend the rather pharasaical amusement of bewailing the “idiocy of women,” who manifestly are “in constant need of guardianship,” and contented himself with the gentle admonition: See it doesn’t happen again.

But Engels did not alone slave away for his friend in office and exchange all day long, but he also gave to him most of his evening leisure hours, in fact, a great part of the night. Although the original reason for this added labor was the necessity of preparing an English version of Marx’s articles for the New York Tribune, until Marx should be able to use the language well enough for literary purposes, the laborious cooperation continued for many years after the original reason had been overcome.

Everything for the Revolution

But all this seems a slight sacrifice as compared with the greatest service Engels rendered his friend, namely, his renunciation of his independent accomplishments as a thinker and investigator, which, in view of his incomparable energy and his rich talents, would have produced valuable results. A correct notion of this sacrifice can also be obtained from the correspondence of the two men, even if we note only the studies in linguistic and military science, which were carried on by Engels partly owing to an “old predilection” and partly with a view to the practical needs of the struggle for proletarian emancipation. For, much as he hated all “autodidacticism” – ”it’s all damn nonsense,” he contemptuously said – and thorough as were his methods of scientific work, he was yet as little a mere closet-scholar as Marx, and every new piece of knowledge was doubly precious in his eyes, if it might aid at once in lightening the chains of the proletariat.

He therefore undertook the study of the Slavic languages because of the “consideration” that in the next great clash of national interests, “at least one of us” should be acquainted with the language, history, literature, social institutions of those nations with whom there was some likelihood of immediate conflict. Oriental troubles led him to the oriental languages; he steered clear of Arabic, with its 4,000 roots; but “Persian is a veritable child’s play of a language”; he would be through with it in three weeks. Then came the turn of the Germanic languages:

“I am now buried in Ulfilas: I simply had to get rid of this damned Gothic: I have been so long carrying it on in a rather desultory manner. I am surprised to find that I know much more than I expected. I need one more book, and then I’ll be absolutely done with it in two weeks. And then for Old Norse and Old Saxon, with which I have long been on terms of half-acquaintance. As yet I have absolutely no paraphernalia, not even a lexicon: nothing but the Gothic text and old Grimm, but the old fellow is really a brick.”

In the sixties, when the Schleswig-Holstein question came up, Engels undertook “some Frisian-English-Jutian-Scandinavian philology and archaeology,” and when the Irish question blazed up, “some Celto-Irish,” and so on. In the General Council of the International his comprehensive linguistic accomplishments were of great value to him; “Engels can stammer in twenty languages,” was said of him, because in moments of excitement he displayed a slight lisp.

Another epithet of his was that of the “General,” which he earned by his still more assiduous devotion to the military sciences. Here also he was satisfying an “old predilection” at the same time he was preparing for the practical needs of the revolutionary policy. Engels was counting on “the enormous importance which the parti militaire would attain in the next commotion.” The experiences with the officers who had joined the revolution in the years of rebellion had not been very satisfactory, and Engels declared that the military rabble has an incredibly dirty caste spirit. “They hate each other worse than poison, envy each other like schoolboys at the slightest mark of distinction, but they show a united front against all civilians.” Engels wanted to arrive at a point at which his theoretical remarks might have some weight and might not merely expose his ignorance.

He had hardly gotten established in Manchester when he began to “plug up military science.” He began with the “simplest and most rudimentary things, such as are asked in an ensign’s or lieutenant’s examination, and are therefore assumed by all authors as already known.” He studied everything about army administration, down to the most technical details: elementary tactics, Vanban’s system of fortification, and all other systems, including the modern system of detached forts, bridge construction and field works, fighting tools, down to the varying construction of carriages for field guns, the ravitaillement of hospitals, and other matters; finally he passed on to the general history of war, in which connection he paid particular attention to the English authority Napier, the French Jomini, and the German Clausewitz.

Far removed from any shallow attacks on the moral folly of warfare, Engels sought rather to recognize its historic justification, by which effort he more than once aroused the violent rage of declamatory democracy. Byron once poured the vials of his scorching rage over the two generals who, at the Battle of Waterloo, in the character of champions of feudal Europe, inflected a deathblow on the heir of the Revolution; it was an interesting accident that made Engels, in his letters to Marx, outline historic portraits both of Wellington and Blucher, which in their small compass, are so complete and so distinct, that they hardly need to be altered in a single respect to make them fully acceptable to the present state of advancement of military science.

In a third field, too, in which Engels also labored much and with pleasure, namely, in that of the natural sciences, he was not to have the opportunity, during the decades in which he accepted the bondage of commerce in order to afford free rein to the scientific investigations of another man – to put the finishing touches to his own labors.

And this was really a tragic lot. But Engels never wailed about it, for sentimentality was as foreign to his nature as to his friend’s. He always held it to be the great good fortune of his life, to have stood by Marx’s side for forty years, even at the price of being overshadowed by Marx’s gigantic form. Nor did he consider it to be a belated form of satisfaction to be permitted, after the death of his friend, to be the first man of the international workers’ movement, to play the first violin, as it were, undisputed, in this movement; on the contrary, he considered this to be an honor that was too great for his merits.

As each of the two men was completely absorbed in the common cause, and each made an equally great sacrifice to it, although not an identical sacrifice, without any disagreeable reservation of objection or of boast, their friendship became an alliance which has no parallel in human history.

Last updated on 21 January 2020