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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 181 Contents

Pete Morgan


Marx’s other half


From Socialist Review, No. 181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Revolutionary Ideas of Frederick Engels
Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Harman, Paul McGarr
International Socialism 65, £4.50

Every great fighter in the revolutionary socialist tradition has recorded his or her massive debt to the ideas and practice of Karl Marx. Yet Frederick Engels, Marx’s lifelong friend and collaborator, stands out as a great thinker and working class fighter whose contribution to socialism has often been undervalued, maligned and distorted.

Fortunately, the strength and relevance of his ideas shine through the fog of such distortions. This special edition of International Socialism commemorates the centenary of Engels’ death in 1995, and is a wonderful collection of essays which examines the contribution that Engels made to Marxism.

Born in 1820 into a middle class family in Germany, Engels grew up at a time of turmoil. He was attracted as a young man to the ideas of German philosophy and especially to Hegel who saw the universe as a process of constant development and change. Progress therefore required a struggle against the existing institutions. By the early 1840s he was already embracing the idea of communism.

Engels’ ideas were also greatly affected by his contact with organised workers. He worked in Manchester in 1842 at the family firm Ermen and Engels. He saw the English working class as a revolutionary class and made contact with its organisation, the Chartists. The barbarity of the developing capitalist system led him to write his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. He wrote scathingly of the ruling class: ‘It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold’ – a description as relevant today as is was when Engels was writing.

His relationship with Marx lasted from 1844 to Marx’s death nearly 40 years later. Engels made a lifelong commitment to Marx and his family, both financially – he worked for 20 years at the family firm because Marx needed income to carry on his studies – and intellectually. Engels co-authored many books and articles with Marx, including The Holy Family, and one of their greatest statements of historical materialism, The German Ideology, as well as writing the first draft of the Communist Manifesto called Principles of Communism.

But Engels was also a great organiser and fighter – sometimes literally. Revolution erupted in Europe in 1848. Marx and Engels were active in the revolutionary movement in Germany. In 1849 Engels actually fought in the Palatine war against the invading Prussian army. Following the battles of 1849 Engels was forced into exile, with the authorities issuing a wanted poster for his arrest, and was to live in England for the rest of his life.

It was only when he gave up his job and moved to London in 1870 that Engels was able to devote more of his time to writing. His Dialectics of Nature, which he started in 1873, was an attempt to apply the ideas of philosophy to science. In 1877 he wrote Anti-Dühring from which the pamphlet Socialism, Utopian and Scientific was drawn, which is still regarded today as one of the greatest introductions to Marxist ideas.

He lived some 12 years after the death of Marx in 1883 and dedicated the rest of his life to developing Marx’s ideas. The final two volumes [Vol. 2 & Vol. 3] of Capital were produced by Engels and he published his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Yet many who claim they are Marxists criticise Engels’ ideas. Despite his close collaboration with Marx, he is often accused of distorting the true spirit of Marxism.

Fortunately this book destroys the misrepresentations of Engels’ Marxism, which John Rees shows are based on a distorted view of his writings. Central to Engels was the theory of historical materialism, developed in the 1840s with Marx. For Engels, human consciousness was linked to and shaped by the economic conditions from which it arose. This is not the crude materialism of which he is often accused. He saw the necessity of human action as key to changing the world, but located it in the prevailing economic relations: ‘Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.’

But he also saw the world as being in constant change, driven forward by the contradictions of everyday life – in capitalist society this means above all the struggle between workers and the bosses.

Perhaps the most controversial of Engels’ work is his study The Origin of the Family. Chris Harman presents a detailed analysis of both this and The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Harman uses recent anthropological evidence to show that labour was central to the development of human history. What separates man from the animal world is his conscious ability to adapt to the world and to shape the world to satisfy human needs. Central to this is the importance of cooperative labour. Human beings are not inherently violent and competitive, this so called ‘human nature’ is shaped by the emergence of class society and the state. Harman shows how Engels has been vindicated in his analysis in The Part Played by Labour.

While some of the analysis in Origin has not stood the test of time, the book made a significant contribution to the fight for women’s liberation as he locates the root cause of women’s oppression in the family and the capitalist system.

Finally, Engels had a real grasp of and made a significant contribution to the understanding of science. The Dialectics of Nature has been often criticised empirically (no wonder considering that Engels was not party to some of the breakthroughs in scientific research that have happened over the last 100 years). Nevertheless, the central claim that links the development of science to the development of production, that the world is in a process of constant change and development, that scientific advances are central to changes in the world, and that the activities of people are key to changing the world, is the cornerstone to Marx’s materialist theory of history. The centrality of working class activity shines through all of Engels’ writings, and this is why, as this book says, he was revolutionary – both in his ideas and his practice.

One of the greatest recommendations for this book is that it inspires you to go to the original writings. Everyone should read Engels because 100 years after his death he is still a magnificent inspiration in the fight for socialism.

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