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Frederick Engels: life of a revolutionary

(Winter 1994)

From International Socialism 2 : 65, Winter 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Frederick Engels came from a privileged family but devoted his life to struggling for the poor and oppressed. He was a man of action but spent much of his time developing theoretical ideas. He worked in a job he hated to enable Karl Marx to concentrate on his studies which produced the three volumes of Capital. These were the two dominant features of Engels’ life: his 50 year long commitment to revolutionary socialism and to working class struggle, and his equally strong personal commitment to Karl Marx, who he sustained politically, financially and with a deep friendship for 40 years until the relationship was broken by Marx’s death in 1883.

Engels had no doubts on either count. He wrote to his mother in 1871, when he was criticised for supporting the first workers’ government, the Paris Commune:

You know my views have not changed for nearly 30 years, and it cannot have come as a surprise to you that, when events compelled me, I should not only maintain them but also do my duty in other ways. You would have reason to be ashamed of me if I did not do so. If Marx was not here, if he did not exist at all, it would make no difference to that. [1]

Commenting on his political and intellectual relationship with Marx, he wrote elsewhere that he was doing what he ‘was meant for, to play second fiddle.’ [2] Yet Engels was much more than a ‘second fiddle’. He was an independent revolutionary thinker, who was already in the process of writing one of his finest books by the time he began his close friendship with Marx in 1844. He combined an original mind with an enthusiasm for revolution and struggle which never left him.

Early life

Frederick was born in Barmen (now Wuppertal) in the Ruhr region of Germany on 28 November 1820. He was the eldest in the family of a mill owner. The young Engels’ politics, atheism and activity were a constant source of worry to, and disagreement with, his father. His home life was comfortable and middle class, but he grew up in what was effectively becoming a factory district, since the adjoining town of Elberfeld was experiencing its own industrial revolution, with the creation of a growing working class. So, as his biographer Gustav Mayer has put it, Engels knew from childhood the real nature of the factory system. [3]

The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 led to the dominance of Prussian and Austrian reaction in central Europe during Engels’ youth. By the time he was politically conscious, that had begun to change. The revolution of July 1830 in France, which established a constitutional monarchy, gave hope to liberals in Germany. There were the beginnings of movements against the old tyranny. Germany at the time comprised a number of sometimes tiny states with varying levels of economic and political development dominated by Prussia which was by far the most important. Many of the movements, particularly in the south German states, were directed at Prussian autocracy.

Engels was a supporter of these movements and ideas. He was also an enthusiastic proponent of liberal German nationalism from a young age. He was sent to work in the port of Bremen and did his military national service for a year in Berlin where he mixed with others of similar views. He wrote on literature and political issues under the name of Friedrich Oswald, and discovered a proficiency in languages.

He was attracted first to the Young Germany movement, whose literature and ideas expressed the youthful hopes of a new generation who were trying to find the liberty they had read about in the French Revolution of 1789 and its much paler shadow, the revolution of 1830. The importance of philosophy in German intellectual life meant that these ideas often expressed themselves in philosophical terms. The Germans talked about what others did, as Marx put it, comparing the Germans unfavourably with the English and French who had made their bourgeois revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. He saw the predominance of philosophical thought in Germany as a sign of the country’s economic backwardness.

Engels and Marx were themselves products of this intellectual environment and therefore first developed an interest in philosophy. They were attracted to the ideas of the philosopher Hegel, the impact of whose teachings was revolutionary, since they stressed that the universe is in a constant process of development and change. This led many of his followers to believe that the struggle against existing institutions, for example the Prussian state and the monarchy, was an inevitable part of social development. Engels joined the Young Hegelians, and later became influenced by the ideas of communism, to which he was already attracted by the early 1840s.

So the young Frederick Engels had already developed left wing ideas when he was despatched to England at the end of 1842 to work in the family firm of Ermen and Engels, manufacturers of sewing thread in Manchester. His experience in England helped to create in Engels an understanding that the working class had the potential to put his communist ideas into practice. He arrived in England only weeks after the Chartist general strike of 1842 which, despite its eventual failure, had demonstrated the potential power of the workers. The strike’s centre was in Manchester and the surrounding areas of Lancashire and Cheshire, the areas of textile production. England was by far the most advanced industrial economy in the world, having been the scene of the Industrial Revolution. It was already leading the world in the production of cotton, coal and iron. Its working class was also the most advanced in the world, organised through the Chartist movement.

Engels was horrified at the poverty and misery that he saw in Manchester. The city had grown up around the cotton industry and was a mass of filthy slums. Infant mortality, epidemic diseases and overcrowding were all facts of life. Up to a quarter of the city’s population were immigrant Irish, driven there by even worse conditions in their own country. Poverty had existed in the old towns and rural areas – as it had done in Germany – but the growth of the big cities exacerbated and accentuated these conditions. The attitude of the capitalist class was brutal. Engels describes how:

I once went into Manchester with such a bourgeois, and spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here: good morning, sir’ [4]

The effect of Manchester on the young man was electrifying. He came into contact with the Chartists and, in 1843, visited the Leeds office of the Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star. One of their leaders, George Julian Harney, much later recorded this impression of Engels at that meeting: ‘a slender young man with a look of almost immaturity, who spoke remarkably pure English, and said he was keenly interested in the Chartist movement’. Harney went on to say that Engels was as modest and retiring 50 years later as he was when a young man of 22 years old. [5]

Engels travelled round, spoke to workers and studied official statistics to produce his remarkable first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. It documents not only how people lived, but also explains how this state of affairs could be – and needed to be – changed. Even today the book is cited by those quite hostile to Engels’ politics for its accurate and sympathetic descriptions of working class life. However, the book is much more than reportage of the terrible conditions in which workers lived. Woven into it is the political analysis of capitalism which Marx and Engels later developed but which even at this stage was central to the book’s analysis. Engels starts by looking at how the Industrial Revolution transformed the old ways of working to such an extent that it created a whole class of wage labourers, the proletariat. The introduction of machinery into the production of textiles, coal and iron turned the British economy into the most dynamic in the world, creating a mass of communications networks – iron bridges, railways, canals – which in turn led to more industrial development.

The new working class soon accounted for the mass of the population, as capitalist methods of manufacturing destroyed many of the old artisan or middle classes, turning the bulk of them or their children into workers. The needs of manufacturing industry led to the building of factories and mills and, moreover, ‘population becomes centralised just as capital does.’ [6] Industrial towns then developed into the great cities that Engels observed when he first visited England. He describes in great detail the condition of life in these cities, using a variety of contemporary press reports, official investigations and even diagrams of the back-to-back houses which formed the early Manchester slums. Nothing escapes Engels’ eye, not even the workers’ diet:

The better paid workers, especially those in whose families every member is able to earn something, have good food as long as this state of things lasts; meat daily and bacon and cheese for supper. Where wages are less, meat is used only two or three times a week, and the proportion of bread and potatoes increases. Descending gradually, we find the animal food reduced to a small piece of bacon cut up with the potatoes; lower still, even this disappears, and there remain only bread, cheese, porridge and potatoes, until on the lowest round of the ladder, among the Irish, potatoes form the sole food … But all this pre-supposes that the workman has work When he has none. he is wholly at the mercy of accident, and eats what is given him, what he can beg or steal. And, if he gets nothing, he simply starves. [7]

At the heart of the misery Engels describes is the very nature of the capitalist system. The competition between capitalists leads them to pay their workers as little as possible, while trying to squeeze more and more work from them: ‘If a manufacturer can force the nine hands to work an extra hour daily for the same wages by threatening to discharge them at a time when the demand for hands is not very great, he discharges the tenth and saves so much wages. [8] This leads in turn to competition between workers for jobs, and to the creation of a pool of unemployed who can be pulled into the workforce when business is booming, and laid off again when it is slack. The existence of this reserve of unskilled and unemployed workers – especially among the immigrant Irish in the cities of the 1840s – holds down the level of wages and conditions for all workers.

The effects of this system are brutal. Engels describes the ill health and low life expectancy of workers compared with the bourgeoisie, the increasing tendency to suicide, the very widespread drunkenness and ‘sexual licence’ – ’the bourgeoisie has left the working class only these two pleasures’ [9] – and the very obvious class divisions, so that ‘the working class has gradually become a race wholly apart from the English bourgeoisie … the workers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie’. [10]

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of this new society for Engels was that, far from resulting in increased prosperity for the workers, the development of capitalism had the inevitable result of producing great wealth for some and increased misery for many. Machinery which should have made lives easier in fact replaced jobs and drove down wages. To pay for their investment the capitalists introduced night working. Workers thrown out of work by the spread of machinery were reduced to selling oranges or shoelaces on the streets, or simply to begging for food. The factory owning class was castigated by Engels: ‘I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie … It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold.’ [11] The mass of beggars created by the system had at all costs to be hidden from view, and the bourgeoisie devised one of the most hated institutions ever just a few years before Engels visited Britain – the workhouse, into which poor, sick and destitute members of the working class were forced.

Yet the working class fought back in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, through the great Chartist movement and in a whole number of skirmishes with the employers where they attempted to defend their living and working conditions. This movement helped Engels understand that as well as capitalism creating competition between workers it also led them to combine to organise against the employers. The attempts to form single unified unions and to withdraw their labour, which was the only weapon they possessed, was warmly applauded by Engels: As schools of war, the unions are unexcelled.’ [12] He concluded the book enthusiastically:

The war of the poor against the rich now carried on in detail and indirectly will become direct and universal. It is too late for a peaceful solution … soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion. Then, indeed, will the war-cry resound through the land: War to the palaces, peace to the cottages!’ – but then it will be too late for the rich to beware. [13]

Engels dedicated the book to ‘the working classes of Great Britain’ and it marked the start of his lifelong commitment to the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. [14] Writing towards the end of his life, Engels explained the importance of this in the development of his thought:

While I was in Manchester, it was tangibly brought home to me that the economic facts, which have so far played no role or only a contemptible one in the writing of history, are, at least in the modern world, a decisive historical force; that they form the basis of the origination of the present-day class antagonisms; that these class antagonisms, in the countries where they have become fully developed, thanks to large-scale industry, hence especially in England, are in their turn the basis of the formation of political parties and of party struggles, and thus of all political history. [15]

On his way from Manchester in the summer of 1844, Engels stopped off in Paris, where he met Marx, and they embarked on their lifelong collaboration. The two had met briefly two years previously, but now they found they had a great deal in common politically, and that each could bring something to the relationship. Engels’ biographer Gustav Mayer has summarised it like this:

Marx … first showed him that politics and history are explicable only in terms of social relations – the principle which became the lever of their whole conception of history … Marx gave Engels both the final proof of his assumption that communism was the continuation and completion of German philosophical thought, and a convincing solution of the apparently irreconcilable conflict between mind and mass … Engels … taught him the technique he needed for the study of economic facts. Engels helped him to know the living realities: and Engels was the right man to do this, since he had personal acquaintance with industry, commerce, and capital, and had been in personal contact with the modern proletariat. [16]

If anything this underestimates Engels’ abilities and influence on Marx at the time. He had a much surer grasp of economics than Marx but also had a background in philosophy and communist politics which was comparable to that of Marx. In addition he had direct experience of the first mass workers’ movement. As Franz Mehring wrote about the two men’s early influences on one another:

The twenty-one months Engels then spent in England had the same significance for him as the year spent in Paris had for Marx. Both of them had gone through the German philosophic school and whilst abroad they came to the same conclusions, but while Marx arrived at an understanding of the struggles and the demands of the age on the basis of the French Revolution, Engels did so on the basis of English industry. [17]

Mehring also commented that, despite Engels’ modest denials, with regard to economics ‘the fact remains that in the beginning it was Engels who gave and Marx who received on that field on which in the last resort the decisive struggle must be fought out.’ [18]

Engels went briefly back home to Barmen after this meeting. The town was buzzing with communist ideas – ’in Barmen the police inspector is a communist’, wrote Engels to Marx – and in early 1845 a communist meeting attracted 200, such was the level of discontent among even the factory owners and the middle classes. [19] But Engels never settled in Barmen. He railed against the place, against his bourgeois father and at having to work in the family firm:

Barmen is too beastly, the waste of time is too beastly and most beastly of all is the fact of being, not only a bourgeois, but actually a manufacturer, a bourgeois who actively takes sides against the proletariat. A few days in my old man’s factory have sufficed to bring me face to face with this beastliness, which I had rather overlooked. [20]

His father was in turn horrified at his son’s communism and by his illegal political activities in this small town in which Engels senior was such a respected citizen. Close interest from the police led Frederick to beat a retreat to Brussels, where Marx was already living. He moved in next door and ‘never again did they work in such close contact as in those years before the revolution, when they were working out their final position both in philosophy and in practical politics’. [21]

The foundations of historical materialism

Marx and Engels’ first written collaboration in 1844 was The Holy Family, or as they originally called it, A Critique of Critical Criticism (the final title was regarded as more punchy but worried Engels who thought it would offend his religious father). In 1846 they wrote The German Ideology, subtitled Critique of modern German philosophy according to its representatives Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Stirner. Its aim was to attack the ideas which dominated German philosophical and political thinking. These the two regarded as mystical and idealist, because they started from ideas in the abstract rather than a materialist analysis. The weight of Marx and Engels’ argument was that an understanding of the world had to start, not from the ideas which existed in people’s heads in any particular historical period, but from the real, material conditions in which these ideas arose. Their starting point was therefore an understanding of the historical development of class society and how people’s ideas altered in this process of social change:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process … Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and all their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. [22]

Nothing about the world could be understood without starting from an understanding of historical development. The German Ideology details some of this history and explains how the very development of society comes into conflict with the ideas, beliefs and structures of existing society. This clash between the two is represented in the struggles between the various classes which represent particular economic interests. It was impossible to develop a theory of socialism which ignored this development or ignored the material reality:

It is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means … slavery cannot he abolished without the steam engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture … in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is a historical and not a mental act. [23]

However, although the stress in The German Ideology is heavily weighted against the idealist philosophers, and their political counterparts the ‘True Socialists’, Marx and Engels did not make the mistake of believing that progress in history was inevitable or that socialists could ignore what human beings actually did to bring about change: ‘circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances’. [24] In any class society, they argue, the class which owns the wealth – the ruling class – also has a monopoly on the ideas of that society:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production. [25]

In addition, ‘for each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society … it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.’ [26]

So the ruling class controls both the means of producing wealth and the production of ideas which justified that control of wealth. The working class, on the other hand, was without property. Workers were also alienated from the products of their labour because they have no control over the productive process and because ‘each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.’ [27] The working class can only escape by making the revolution, by collectively seizing the means of production from which it is separated under capitalism. The description of this process is worth repeating for its clarity:

A class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness and necessity of a fundamental revolution … In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which … is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc., within present society … Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. [28]

The proletariat is a revolutionary class, but it needs to make a revolution before it can control the wealth it produces. It is only in the process of making a revolution that it can fully come to revolutionary or ‘communist consciousness’. Discussion of communist ideas led Marx and Engels to talk about organisation based on these ideas. Around this time they turned to trying to build such an organisation. They had formed the Communist Correspondence Committee in 1846, to keep in touch with those of like minded views. But Engels moved to Paris in August of that year (Marx was exiled from France) to organise among German artisans in the League of the Just, and to establish some contact with the French workers’ movement.

He found it heavy going at first. The artisans’ tradition of craft working, small family businesses and the like made them much less amenable to communist politics than the Manchester cotton workers. Trying to build among workers meant a sharp argument with other socialist tendencies inside the movement, including the ‘True Socialists’, followers of Karl Grün. Marx and Engels attacked the ‘True Socialists’ in their writings at the time, and saw them as a rival to communist ideas inside the emerging working class movement. The ‘True Socialists’ talked in very radical terms but Marx and Engels saw them as in fact the product of the retarded nature of Germany’s economic and social development. The dominance of the petty bourgeoisie, of small businessmen, artisans and craftsmen, in German society meant that a socialism which played down the fundamental antagonism between the two major classes inside capitalism, and ‘proclaims instead the universal love of mankind’ could have a real appeal. [29]

A letter from Engels to the Communist Correspondence Committee describes a fraught meeting in Paris in October 1846 where Engels defined the aims of the communists off the cuff in response to the ‘True Socialists’ criticisms:

(1) to ensure that the interests of the proletariat prevail, as opposed to those of the bourgeoisie; (2) to do so by abolishing private property and replacing same with community of goods; (3) to recognise no means of attaining these aims other than democratic revolution by force. [30]

The form which the earliest communist organisation took was the Communist League. Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just, along with groups of exiled Germans and other nationalities of workers and artisans. Although Engels’ direct experience led him to despair of the Paris League, Marx and Engels put their faith in the London branch. In late 1846 the leadership of the League moved from Paris to London. This group, led by Schapper, Moll and Bauer, was in the process of looking for new ideas and ‘they turned to Marx, perhaps because the Marxian stress on economics and class warfare meant more to them, exposed as they were to the Chartist movement in the advanced industrial England’. [31]

At the League’s London congress on June 1847 it changed its name to the Communist League and its slogan to ‘Proletarians of all lands unite’ from the previous, more ‘True Socialist’, ‘All men are brothers’. At the London congress Marx and Engels were instructed to draft a platform – which became their most famous joint work and which remains one of the clearest statements of their politics – The Communist Manifesto. The first draft, known as Principles of Communism, was written by Engels. Marx worked on Principles to produce the final draft which was printed in German in early 1848.

Principles of Communism is a beautiful example of Engels’ writing style: a very short, simple pamphlet written in question and answer form. He describes how capitalist society creates two major classes which stand in contradiction to one another:

Two new classes have come into being which are gradually swallowing up all others, namely:

(I) The class of big capitalists, who in all civilised countries are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistence and of the raw materials and instruments (machines, factories) necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class or the bourgeoisie.

(II) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labour to the bourgeoisie in order to get in exchange the means of subsistence necessary for their support. This class is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat. [32]

The old ways of living were destroyed by the development of capitalism:

Free competition is necessary for the establishment of large-scale industry because it is the only state of society in which large-scale industry can make its way. Having destroyed the social power of the nobility and the guildmasters, the bourgeoisie also destroyed their political power. [33]

Capitalism is a dynamic system, based on the accumulation of capital through commodity production. Competition between different capitalists leads to the constant search for greater profits and greater accumulation of capital. This means new investment in machinery, new ways of making workers work harder, new factories and industries.

But this revolutionary system is prone to crisis. The unplanned nature of capitalism and its drive to accumulate leads to overproduction, which in turn leads to factory closures and unemployment. Suddenly there is, as The Communist Manifesto puts it, ‘too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce … the conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.’ [34] In the midst of such previously unheard of wealth there is misery and waste. The capitalist looks for ways out: destruction of some capital – so that the crisis leads to the collapse of individual capitalists to the benefit of their rivals – or the search for new markets and new investment. This search leads to greater investment, but there is less relative return on the investment. Both ‘solutions’ expand the system but eventually lead to further crises.

These means of escaping the crisis also deepen class antagonisms. Workers are forced to work harder and for longer hours. More workers are pulled into production, more of the old handicrafts and ways of working are destroyed. It is this new class which can make the communist revolution through the abolition of private property by socialised production. The revolution will,

Have to take the running of industry and of all branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole, that is, for the common account, according to a common plan and with the participation of all members of society. It will, in other words, abolish competition and replace it with association. [35]

Principles of Communism and then The Communist Manifesto were written in the expectation of imminent revolution. There were signs of worsening economic conditions and political discontent. The analysis of capitalism developed by Marx and Engels led them to assume that revolution would take place. As the capitalist mode of production developed and spread from England to Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, so it increasingly clashed with the old feudal regimes which still dominated Europe. The rise of capitalism brought with it the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie, whose interests were quite opposed to the old autocratic regimes. The production of capital and the development of a class of free wage labourers presupposed all sorts of legal freedoms, a limited suffrage to elect a democratic parliament, freedom of religion, and an end to the restraints on trade and business which characterised the old regimes.

In England in the 17th century and France in the 18th century the clash between these two classes brought about the great revolutionary movements which transformed property and social relations in those countries forever. Marx and Engels were convinced the same would happen elsewhere. In their native Germany, where the division of the country into 39 often very small states hampered the development of any sort of bourgeois democracy, they saw bourgeois revolution with national unification as essential for the development of capitalism and for progress in general. The Communist Manifesto began with the still famous phrase, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’. [36] Their prediction of revolution was accurate.

Revolution in Europe

The creation of the Communist League in 1847 took place against a background of growing social unrest. Economic depression had worsened living conditions. Famine and hunger were stalking Europe, most notoriously in Ireland where millions emigrated or starved, but also in continental Europe where bread riots occurred in many countries. ‘The climax of the Hungry Forties in Europe came when the depression of 1847 brought business failures, unemployment and frequent reduction in wages. Every third family in Cologne received public relief.’ [37] Among the middle classes there were growing liberal and nationalist protests in Germany, Austria and Italy – countries all under various forms of feudal rule.

Engels had returned to Paris in December 1847, after attending the second League congress in London in November and then staying with Marx in Brussels. He attempted to establish contact with the French socialist Louis Blanc, with some success. But by January 1848 he wrote to Marx in some despair, ‘Things are going wretchedly with the League here’. [38] He was more optimistic about the state of the democratic movement and the impetus for bourgeois revolution in countries such as Germany and Austria, but at the end of January he was expelled from France just as revolution was about to break out. The government prohibited a big reform banquet in Paris, due to take place on 22 February. A number of such banquets had been held in the previous months as part of the growing mood for reform. Within two days there were barricades on the streets and the king abdicated. France was left with a provisional government which in turn proclaimed a republic. For the first time the government contained workers’ representatives; Louis Blanc and the representative of the Parisian workers, called simply Albert. The government initially guaranteed a ‘right to work’ for all, with the creation of ‘national workshops’ for the jobless, to be paid for by increased taxation.

The movement spread throughout Europe in the following weeks: to Sicily, Vienna, Berlin, Milan. The Prussian regime was forced to allow political activity, and to endorse national unification. Engels wrote in March 1848 that, with the exception of Cologne, where some communists were arrested, ‘otherwise the news from Germany is splendid. In Nassau a revolution completed, in Munich students, painters and workers in full revolt, in Kassel revolution on the doorstep, in Berlin unbounded fear and indecision, in the whole of western Germany freedom of the press and National Guard proclaimed’. [39] Two weeks later he wrote to Marx, ‘In Germany things are going very well indeed, riots everywhere and the Prussians aren’t giving way’. [40]

Marx and Engels returned to their native Germany in April – to Cologne, a city which was under Prussian rule but which had the liberal press laws inherited from French occupation under Napoleon. They launched their new daily paper as the ‘organ of democracy’. The Neue Rheinische Zeitung appeared from June.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm has written of 1848, ‘Within a matter of weeks no government was left standing in an area of Europe which is today occupied by all or part of ten states, not counting lesser repercussions in a number of others.’ Yet ‘within six months of its outbreak its universal defeat was safely predictable, within 18 months of its outbreak all but one of the regimes it overthrew had been restored, and the exception (the French Republic) was putting as much distance as it could between itself and the insurrection to which it owed its existence’. [41]

The 1848 revolutions were bourgeois, not workers’ revolutions – which meant that in countries such as Germany the liberal capitalists and the middle classes such as doctors and lawyers, determined the course of the revolution, even though it was supported by the poorer classes of peasants, artisans and the emerging working class. That explains the nature of the revolution’s early days when all classes united against the old order. Marx described February 1848 in France, symbolised by the poet Lamartine, as ‘the beautiful revolution, the revolution of universal sympathy’. [42] Only seemingly small numbers of reactionaries were opposed to the revolutions.

But there was a crucial difference between 1848 and the earlier revolutions. When the English and French revolutions had taken place the working class was barely in existence. By 1848 it was a major and growing force in England, France and, increasingly, Germany. Marx and Engels had long been contemptuous of the German bourgeoisie, whom they viewed as too timid and ‘philistine’ to make a revolution. They regarded the Germans as wanting the fruits of revolution without being prepared to risk their property or lives. As the revolution took its course in the various states which made up Germany not only was this assessment proved accurate, but it also became increasingly clear that the German bourgeoisie was more frightened of the emerging working class than it was of the old order.

Engels wrote in early 1848 that the rule of the bourgeoisie would be short lived; they would taste the fruits of rule by making their revolution, but the proletariat was waiting in the wings:

Your reward shall be a brief time of rule. You shall dictate laws, you shall bask in the sun of your own majesty, you shall banquet in the royal halls and woo the king’s daughter – but remember! The hangman’s foot is on the threshold! [43]

But what if the bourgeoisie shrank from this historic task because it would rather go into alliance with the old feudal order it so hated than side with the workers? This was, of course, exactly what happened in Germany. It took another 20 years before the project of national unification and untrammelled capitalist development was fully under way, and then it was under the leadership of Bismarck, one of the most frenzied reactionaries in 1848. The reason for the German bourgeoisie’s timidity lay, above all, in their fear of what happened in France. There the hopes of the February revolution, which proclaimed the republic, increasingly gave way to fears that the class rule of the bourgeoisie was under threat from the workers. In particular the middle classes were infuriated by the increased taxes levied to pay for the national workshops.

The newly elected National Assembly moved against the workshops in June, enlisting the unmarried men into the army and moving various other people out of Paris, the hotbed of revolution. The day the Assembly met to consider closing the workshops, barricades were again thrown up, as they had been in February. But this time the fighting was between those who had made the February revolution. Although some 60,000 people fought behind the barricades, they were crushed after four days by the forces of General Cavaignac. This was how the ruling class dealt with the ‘spectre of communism’ and the liberal middle classes were well prepared to go along with such treatment rather than risk their property. Marx and Engels recognised the June days as the first big clash between the bourgeoisie and proletariat:

Fraternité, the brotherhood of opposing classes, one of which exploits the other, this ‘fraternité’ was proclaimed in February and written in capital letters on the brow of Paris, on every prison and every barracks. But its true, genuine, prosaic expression is civil war in its most terrible form, the war between labour and capital. This fraternity flamed in front of all the windows of Paris on the evening of 25 June. The Paris of the bourgeoisie was illuminated, while the Paris of the proletariat burned, bled and moaned in its death agony. [44]

Events in Paris influenced the revolution elsewhere in Europe and nowhere more so than in Germany. Here the revolutionary fervour was high. Despite concessions from the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, in March 1848 – a Berlin parliament, an end to censorship and a unified Germany – barricades were thrown up in Berlin too. Shots had been fired at crowds celebrating their gains outside the royal palace. The crowds fought with the soldiers. The king called off the troops and was forced to pay his respects to the dead as they were carried past his balcony. By April the liberal leaders, Camphausen and Hansemann, were in key positions in the Prussian parliament and the transition towards a bourgeois democracy in Germany seemed inevitable.

The national Frankfurt parliament was established in May. It was moderate and stood for a constitutional monarchy, rather than the republic for which Marx and Engels hoped. They saw this form of national unification as a compromise with the old monarchy and aristocracy, rather than a break with them.

The liberal leaders in Germany gained the benefits of the February revolution in France, because Germany’s rulers were frightened into making concessions without much resistance. But the liberals were also confirmed in their timidity by the June events which taught them that too many concessions to the masses would lead to ‘anarchy’. They wanted stability and order in the new Germany. To this end they introduced various programmes of job creation and public works to buy off discontent.

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung appeared in this context at the beginning of June. Marx and Engels saw their place as being on the extreme left wing of the democracy movement, rather than cutting the communists off from the movement completely. They saw the major division as being between old reaction and the new democratic forces. So the first issue of their paper described the feudal reactionaries’ victory over the revolution in Naples and Sicily and warned of the dangers of the military attacking the revolution in Germany. [45] Engels also attacked the Frankfurt parliament for its lack of drive and decisiveness. [46] The Prussian assembly came under even greater attack, especially when further street fighting loomed in the middle of June.

When the French June Days took place the German movement was split in its response. Marx and Engels and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung were fully behind the working class fighters, while the ‘moderate’ democrats opposed them and attacked the communists. The democrat and republican Bonner Zeitung’s attack had a now familiar ring when it stated ‘we want freedom, but we also want order, without which no freedom can exist. Was the Neue Rheinische Zeitung truly defending democracy when it praised a wild insurrection which endangered the republic, the first fundamental basis for a democracy?’ [47]

The fear of the June Days marked the turning point after which there was increased repression of the democratic and workers’ organisations. The Camphausen ministry in Berlin was replaced by that of Hansemann which stressed constitutional monarchy and increased law and order. Yet the revolutionary mood remained, heightened in the summer by the Frankfurt parliament’s capitulation over the Danish annexation of the northern Schleswig-Holstein province. By September the situation had reached boiling point. The class forces were polarising: the military, monarchy and aristocracy towards further repression and a showdown with the Prussian assembly, the democrats by demonstrating against the Hansemann ministry and against the attacks by reactionaries on the Democratic Society. The assembly’s attempts to control the army were blocked by Hansemann, who in turn faced demonstrations and protests.

In Cologne the communist influence was growing and in early September a Committee of Public Safety was formed to defend the revolution. Members of the committee, which was openly elected at a mass meeting, included Marx, Engels and their fellow communists Schapper, Moll and Wolff. A meeting held in the town of Worringen just up the river from Cologne attracted thousands and many of the barges travelling to it carried red flags. Engels spoke, among others. The Demands of the Communist Party were distributed at the meeting. This was the high point of communist organisation in the revolution. Less than a fortnight later the Prussians declared a state of siege in Cologne and several of the most prominent speakers and organisers were arrested. Engels had left home by the time the police called. The Neue Rheinische Zeitung was banned. Engels escaped via Barmen to Belgium and then into France. Meanwhile a wanted poster was put out for him.

Engels spent the closing months of the year walking through eastern France to Switzerland, where he stayed for a couple of months until things had died down in Germany. While there he wrote a large number of articles for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (only briefly prevented from publication) on Swiss politics and what was happening to the revolution elsewhere in Europe, especially in the Austrian empire, where the Hungarians led by Louis Kossuth were fighting for independence. Engels’ views on the various national struggles have long proved controversial, since he distinguished between certain national groups who he believed had a future as independent nations within Europe – especially the Germans, the Italians, the Poles and the Hungarians – and those, in particular the small groups of Slavic peoples, whose national movements Engels regarded as sometimes little more than a cover for reactionary Russian despotism. So Engels wrote in 1849 that ‘the revolution of 1848 compelled all the European peoples to declare for it or against it. In one month all the peoples which were ripe for revolution had made their revolution, all the unripe peoples had formed an alliance against the revolution.’ [48] He saw the development of the revolution, especially in the Austrian empire, as clearly divided into ‘two huge armed camps: on one side, the side of revolution, were the Germans, Poles and Magyars; on the other side, the side of counter-revolution, were the others, ie all the Slavs with the exception of the Poles, plus the Romanians and the Saxons of Transylvania’. [49]

He saw the counter-revolutionary nature of the South Slavs in particular as connected with their lack of economic and social development, which not only led them to ally with the Russian Tsar, but also meant that their future as nations in an emerging capitalist Europe was in doubt. He compared them to groups such as the Scottish Highlanders who supported the reactionary Stuarts from 1640 to 1745, or the Bretons in France who supported the old Bourbon monarchy during the French Revolution. Mehring describes the political background which justified these views:

In the Slav question also the interests of the revolution were paramount in determining the attitude of Marx and Engels. The Austrian Slavs – with the exception of the Poles – had sided with the reaction in the struggle of the Vienna government against the revolutionary Germans and against Hungary. They had taken revolutionary Vienna by storm and handed it over to the merciless vengeance of the ‘Royal and Imperial’ authorities.’

Mehring continues, ‘Their struggle for national independence made them the willing tools of Tsarism, and not all the well-meaning self-deceptions of the democratic Pan-Slavs could alter this fact’. [50]

Engels’ view of the future of the Slav nationalities has come under attack for seeming to favour particular national groups while attacking others, and for being wrong about whether all the Slav peoples had a future as nation states. [51] But he always approached the question from the point of view of European politics: that national independence in Germany, Italy, Poland and Hungary would represent progress over the patchwork of nations held together by reactionary autocratic empires which dominated central and eastern Europe. His judgement on particular peoples was based on how far they supported such advances, and also whether they supported the arch reactionary empire, that of Russia. In both instances the record of most of the South Slavs was appalling. As one not particularly sympathetic biographer has put it:

Engels’ judgements on whole peoples reflected the real struggles and hard choices of the time, when democratic rights were difficult to achieve and easy to lose. In those circumstances he felt obliged to identify potential enemies to the cause of constitutionalism – though he may not have been correct in his allegations – because actual enemies were causing numerous deaths amongst the democrats whom he was supporting. [52]

It was this which motivated his views on the national question.

Engels was active in the workers’ movement in Switzerland and was appointed a delegate to a workers’ congress while there, but he wanted to get back to Germany and managed to do so by the end of January 1849, when he heard that there would be no charges against him. The revolutionary wave which had erupted a year before was by no means over, but its impact was fading. Vienna was once again in the hands of the feudal reactionaries, but the Hungarians were still fighting under Louis Kossuth. Engels still hoped for a new French revolution, and Germany itself was still seemingly bound for unification. He wanted the Frankfurt parliament to declare for unification against Prussia and so open up a revolutionary civil war.

Tension in the Rhineland mounted in early May 1849, as the hopes of the people clashed with the military might of Prussia, encamped in occupation of the region. The government’s mobilisation of the militia to thwart democratic revolt brought matters to a head and barricades were thrown up in Engels’ home town of Elberfeld, where a Committee of Public Safety was appointed. Engels threw himself into the struggle with his usual gusto, despite attempts by the local bourgeoisie to drive this dangerous red from their town.

But the uprising was defeated, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung suppressed and the end of the German Revolution was in sight. While Marx went to Paris, Engels stayed in the Palatinate, last bastion of revolution. When the Prussians invaded, Engels joined in the ensuing war, fighting in the army as assistant to the ‘True Socialist’ Willich, and was the veteran of four battles before he once again retreated to Switzerland. This time, however, his exile was anything but temporary.


Marx made his way to London in the summer of 1849. Engels joined him that autumn, travelling via Genoa by sea to avoid problems in France. They were both young men and could not have dreamt that their exile would last for the rest of their lives. For one thing, they expected the failed revolution to rise again very rapidly, as was clear from a letter Marx wrote to Engels that summer. [53] They spent much time analysing the revolution and what had gone wrong, and further developed the analysis which they held for the rest of their lives: the bourgeoisie wanted revolution, but was too cowardly to really fight for it once the working class was an active force on the political scene. The democrats and various supporters of the bourgeoisie were therefore half hearted revolutionaries who would pull back from the final confrontation in favour of compromise with the old order.

In their writings therefore Marx and Engels put a lot of emphasis on workers needing to follow a bourgeois revolution with their own workers’ revolution and increasingly talked about the need for a ‘permanent revolution’ until workers’ power was achieved. Their address to the Communist League written in 1850 said:

[the workers] themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organised party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution. [54]

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was to extend the analysis half a century later to explain how it was that Russian workers in backward semi-feudal Russia had to jump over the heads of the extremely weak and vacillating bourgeoisie in order to make the revolutions. [55]

Hopes of immediate revival of revolution soon faded, however, and the exiled revolutionaries had to seriously assess what they should do. Attempts to publish a German paper from London were short lived, and the two quickly became disillusioned with émigré politics. They broke with the habits and petty squabbles of the other European exiles, and the Communist League split. They also had strategic differences with other socialists, especially the Blanquists who believed that if only the revolutionary vanguard acted alone it could somehow make the revolution, despite unfavourable objective conditions. Marx and Engels came to see that capitalism had stabilised itself politically following the revolutionary wave, and was poised for great economic expansion into corners of the globe which had previously been untouched.

In 1850 Engels made a decision which meant great personal sacrifice to him; he agreed to work once again in the family firm of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. He did so to ensure that he received a decent income from his father, who wanted a member of the family keeping an eye on the Ermen side of the partnership while he himself stayed in Germany. Engels’ income went in large part to sustain Marx and his family – a task which Engels took upon himself from 1850 until Marx’s death over 40 years later. He did so out of personal and political regard for Marx, whose family were suffering terrible poverty.

Marx’s wife, Jenny, endured many pregnancies but only three children survived into adulthood – Jenny Caroline, Jenny Laura and Jenny Eleanor. Marx wrote to Engels in 1850 on the death of his baby son Heinrich Guido that his wife was in a state of exhaustion and that the baby had died as a ‘victim of bourgeois misère’. [56] The family had to endure much travelling, police persecution and above all poverty. They lived in miserable lodgings in London’s Soho and were constantly beset with problems of ill health and unpaid bills.

Engels saved the Marx family from this destitution and allowed Marx to develop his theoretical studies which culminated in Capital, the first volume of which appeared in 1867. Engels’ help eventually enabled the family to move to a house in north London, ensured that Christmas was always celebrated, paid for holidays and made sure the girls got an education. He was also totally uncomplaining about it. He detested work at Ermen and Engels, and thought initially he would be there for just a short time. Eleanor Marx described the day, nearly 20 years later, when he was able to finally leave, having secured enough money to keep himself and the Marx family in some comfort:

I was with Engels when he reached the end of this forced labour and I saw what he must bave gone through all those years. I shall never forget the triumph with which he exclaimed ‘for the last time’ as he put on his boots in the morning to go to his office. A few hours later we were standing at the gate waiting for him. We saw him coming over the little field opposite the house where we lived. He was swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming. Then we set the table for a celebration and drank champagne and were happy. [57]

That Engels agreed to work in Manchester was a sign of his dedication to the Marx family, but his situation was also eased by his personal relations with the Burns sisters, Mary and Lizzie. Engels is assumed to have met Mary when he first visited Manchester in the early 1840s, and she certainly accompanied him to continental Europe in 1845. Mary was Irish and working class. She and Engels never married but he lived much of the time at the house he provided for her and Lizzie in Ardwick (although he maintained separate lodgings). Engels was distraught at her death at the age of 41 in 1863. As he wrote to Marx, ‘I felt as though with her I was burying the last vestige of my youth’. [58]

Mary Burns’s death was the occasion of almost the only sharp interchange between the two friends. Marx received a letter from Engels telling him of the death and Engels, not unnaturally, expected his old friend to extend great sympathy. Instead, Marx’s reply mostly dwelt on the problems of finance and health which were yet again besetting his family. Engels did not reply for a week and then wrote a fairly reproachful letter, to which Marx then wrote a deeply apologetic reply. Engels finally came round, although obviously still hurt:

I tell you, your letter stuck in my head for a whole week, I couldn’t forget it. Never mind, your last letter made it quits: and I am glad that when I lost Mary I did not also lose my oldest and best friend. [59]

So the threatened rift between the two was mended. Why did Marx respond in this way? We can only conjecture, but it would seem to be a combination of obsession with his own problems (he and Jenny had decided to get the two older daughters posts as governesses and move into a lodging house with their youngest daughter – although Engels eventually came to their rescue on this, as on so much else) plus, possibly, a lack of understanding of Engels’ feelings for Mary. Their relationship was unconventional. Mary and Engels never married and lived apart, at least formally. The great class differences between them were much harder to overcome in the 19th century than they would be today. Culturally they must have seemed very far apart – Mary was probably illiterate, for example, and did not share the same friends as Engels.

When Engels eventually started a relationship with Mary’s sister Lydia, known as Lizzie, Marx and Jenny appear to have been careful not to make the same mistake again. They became friendly with Lizzie (she and Jenny Marx would holiday together in later years) and Eleanor visited Manchester to stay at the Engels-Burns household. She also accompanied them on a trip to Ireland.

Much is made of Engels’ unconventional relationships with the Burns sisters (he only married Lizzie on her deathbed in 1878). It is often implied that their relationship must have been unequal and so fits closely the image of the well off bourgeois man with his working class mistresses who are kept out of the way of respectable society. Terrell Carver’s remark that, ‘in love Engels does not seem to have gone searching for his intellectual equal’ is fairly typical. [60] It is impossible at this distance to know whether the Burns sisters were his ‘intellectual equal’. But we do know that they were political, sympathetic to communism and to the cause of Irish nationalism. Eleanor Marx learnt about Irish oppression from Lizzie Burns who also showed her the haunts of the Fenian Manchester Martyrs. [61] When Engels met the young Mary Burns in 1840s Manchester she was almost certainly involved in the Chartist politics of the time, as were so many Irish textile workers. There is no sign that the relationships were ever regarded by any of the participants as one sided or oppressive. There is, however, some evidence that Engels gained a great deal from living with these women, and that their personalities were at one with his own. Engels wrote to the German socialist August Bebel’s wife in 1878 after Lizzie’s death, ‘She was of genuine Irish proletarian stock and her passionate, innate feeling for her class was of far greater value to me and stood me in better stead at moments of crisis than all the refinement and culture of your educated and aesthetic young ladies. [62] The 14 year old Eleanor Marx wrote home in 1869 with a description of the Burns household:

On Saturday it was so warm that we, that is Auntie [Lizzie] and myself and Sarah, lay down on the floor the whole day drinking beer, claret, etc. … In the evening when Uncle [Engels] came home he found Auntie, me and Ellen [Lizzie’s niece], who was telling us Irish tales, all lying our full length on the floor, with no stays, no hoots, and one petticoat and a cotton dress on, and that was all. [63]

His role as a respectable businessman was one reason why Engels had to keep his private life separate from his work, and so it was only when he left Ermen and Engels and moved to London that he could live openly with Lizzie.

The period which opened up before Marx and Engels in the 1850s was quite difficult for political agitation. Reaction was triumphant in much of Europe. In France, Louis Napoleon established a dictatorship which lasted until the Franco-Prussian War nearly 20 years later. In Germany an alliance of the Prussian monarchy with the statesman Bismarck, representative of the reactionary noble Junker caste, ushered in the move towards a centralised and industrialised capitalist state, with eventual unification under Prussian dominance. Britain and its empire were going through an unprecedented period of domestic and overseas expansion, and its once militant working class was entering a long period of social peace and relative prosperity. Left wing politics, as so often in times of reaction and working class defeat, were dominated by inward looking, sectarian squabbling.

The 1848 revolutionaries, the men of action, now found themselves in a very different situation. Marx worked on his studies for Capital, and both men spent much of their time commenting, in their correspondence and in various pieces of journalism and other writings, on events about which they could do little. They wrote on the Crimean War, the American Civil War and the economic depression of 1857. Marx was hired to write regular articles for the New York Daily Tribune on a variety of topics. Often they were written by Engels, especially where they concerned military matters or questions of international diplomacy. Engels himself found it impossible to get full time journalistic work because of his political views, as his attempt to become military correspondent of the Daily News demonstrated. [64]

Although the class struggle remained at a low ebb in Britain, there were two events in the early 1860s which Marx and Engels considered to be important: the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 and the Civil War in America, which began in the same year and was eventually to complete the bourgeois revolution started against English colonialism in 1776. Marx wrote in 1860, ‘In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America, started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the slaves in Russia’. [65]

The American Civil War was a struggle between the Southern Confederacy of slave owning states and the Northern states under Lincoln, who wanted to stop the extension of slavery to any new states. The British ruling class tended to support the Southern Confederacy, from whom it bought the cotton so central to the British economy. The British ruling class also saw the emerging United States as a major threat to its world dominance. British workers, on the other hand, overwhelmingly opposed slavery and demonstrated in favour of victory for the North. Marx and Engels were enthusiastic supporters of the Northern Union side. The Union represented the more industrialised, democratic and progressive society. But Marx and Engels were very impatient at the failure of the Northern armies to score rapid and decisive victories against the supposedly inferior South. Engels wrote to Marx in November 1862, ‘I must say I cannot work up any enthusiasm for a nation which on such a colossal issue allows itself to be continually beaten by a fourth of its own population, and which after eighteen months of war has achieved nothing more than the discovery that all its generals are asses and all its officials rascals and traitors’. [66]

He and Marx had already debated whether the North was likely to win. The superior tactics of the South, under General Lee, led Engels at times to despair of the North’s victory. On purely military grounds he had good reason, since the North conducted the first two years of war in a shambolic and half hearted way. Most importantly, its leaders and military men refused to mobilise the radical sentiments of the mass of Northerners and its natural supporters in the Southern states – the slaves themselves. Marx wrote in August 1862 that ‘the North will finally make war seriously, adopt revolutionary methods and throw over the domination of the border slave statesmen. A single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves’. [67]

This is in fact what happened. Crucial to the North’s fortunes were, firstly, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves and, secondly, the bringing into play of the superior industrial strength of Northern industrial capitalism over the slave system of the South. Engels recognised the mark the Civil War would make on future development in what was to become the United States. He wrote to his old friend Joseph Weydemeyer, now living in St Louis, that:

[the war’s] outcome will doubtless determine the future course of America as a whole for hundreds of years. As soon as slavery – that greatest of obstacles to the political and social development of the United States – has been smashed, the country will experience a boom that will very soon assure it an altogether different place in the history of the world, and the army and navy created during the war will then soon find employment. [68]

The First International

Solidarity among British workers with the Northern side in the American Civil War, the massive sympathy for Garibaldi’s attempt at Italian unification in 1861, and support for the democratic struggle in Poland, all contributed to a sense of internationalism among the British working class and also formed the backdrop for Marx and Engels’ decision to involve themselves directly in working class organisation for the first time since the collapse of the 1848 revolutions. The International Working Men’s Association, known as the First International, was set up in 1864 and held its first Congress in 1865. Marx was absolutely central to its political development and to the fact that it held together as an organisation over the ensuing years.

The International was an amalgam of very different politics, drawn from its two main national components, the English and French. Its main English support stemmed from the London Trades Council, a body which was beginning to feel its industrial strength after years when the working class had remained quiescent. But it represented only a minority of the working class, the skilled trade unionists, and its leaders – men like the shoemaker George Odger, the cabinet maker Robert Applegarth and the carpenter William Cremer – held politics a fairly long way from Marx’s. One of their main aims in establishing the International was to stop foreign scab labour from undermining trade unions in Britain, although they were also keen on developing solidarity with movements for democracy in other countries. The French were followers of Proudhon, and therefore adhered to some form of artisan socialism which criticised capitalism from the point of view of returning to small scale production. Consequently they were hostile to the state and were also opposed to strikes and revolution.

Marx drew up the inaugural address and rules for the General Council of the International which was based in London, where he tried to steer a course between his own politics and those of the various components of the International, in order to ensure that the organisation got off the ground and made some advances in organising across national boundaries. Marx wrote enthusiastically to Engels on 1 May 1865:

The great success of the International Association is this: the Reform League [based on agitation for the suffrage] is our work … We have baffled all attempts of the middle class to mislead the working class … If we succeed in re-electrifying the political movement of the English working class, our Association … will have done more for the working class of Europe than has been possible in any other way. [69]

Again in 1866 he wrote, ‘The workers’ demonstrations in London, which are marvellous compared with anything we have seen in England since 1849, are purely the work of the International’. [70]

Marx’s other great achievement in the mid-1860s was the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867. Marx was well aware of the debt he owed Engels both in terms of financial support and of the constant collaboration which had enabled him to test his ideas and theories with his oldest friend:

So this volume is finished. It was thanks to you alone that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks! [71]

Engels, being in Manchester, was clearly not involved in the day to day work of the International but he followed the politics and the international situation closely. When war broke out between Austria and Prussia in 1866, Engels wrote a series of articles on the conflict and, unusually, quite wrongly predicted the defeat of Prussia. However, he also saw that the Prussian victory would lead inevitably to German unification on Prussia’s terms and the falling out between Bismarck and his erstwhile ally, Louis Napoleon.

Engels also maintained a strong interest in the situation in Ireland, which reached crisis point in the late 1860s. The Fenian movement of Irish nationalists organised a series of armed protests against the British state and so brought home the struggle against Irish colonial oppression to the British ruling class. The huge Irish immigrant population in cities like Manchester and London supported their struggle. The reprisals against the Fenians by the British ruling class were vicious and there was an outcry when the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ were hanged in 1867. There was, however, just as in more recent times, a backlash against the Irish nationalists among English workers, especially when a bombing in Clerkenwell killed ordinary people.

Engels wanted to write a history of Ireland and visited the country with Lizzie and Eleanor Marx in 1869, after he had left Ermen and Engels. He wanted to explain the economic reasons why Ireland was kept in subordination, but why also this subordination had not – despite the best efforts of the English rulers – wiped out Irish identity, culture and nationalism. He wrote to Marx on his return, ‘Irish history shows one how disastrous it is for a nation to have subjected another nation … things would have taken another turn in England too, if it had not been necessary to rule in Ireland by military means and to create a new aristocracy there.’ [72]

However, the book did not materialise. Some sections were found in Engels’ papers after his death, but it seems that much of it was never completed. Perhaps the reason for this was the turn in political events and, to a lesser extent, in Engels’ personal circumstances. He and Lizzie moved to London in the autumn of 1870, to a house in Regent’s Park Road, since he now had the financial independence to work full time at politics.

The political situation in Europe was then in flux. When war broke out between the two major continental European powers, France and Germany, in the autumn of 1870, Engels backed Germany at first, seeing its expansion as the means of defeating the French emperor on the one hand, and of curtailing the power of reactionary Russia on the other. It was only after Napoleon III’s defeat at the battle of Sedan that he saw the main threat to European workers as German expansionism. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine (the provinces on France’s eastern borders) by Germany, Marx and Engels predicted, would only lead to further war between France and Germany.

Events in France were of central political importance in 1870 and 1871. They also brought out the political differences in the International, which could be smoothed over in periods of relative social calm but could not hold together when there were fundamental questions at stake. Such was the situation which Marx and Engels now faced.

The overthrow of Napoleon III led to political turmoil in France between September 1870, when the French army was defeated, through to the end of May 1871, when the Paris Commune was finally defeated and the reactionaries took control. A republic was proclaimed in September 1870, but very soon there were differences over what sort of republic it was to be. Should it continue to govern in the interests of large scale capital, as the Second Empire had done, or should there be a government which represented the workers and small shopkeepers? The collapse of the Second Empire led to various localised attempts at insurrection. They failed but in Paris the possibility of revolutionary government was on the agenda.

Paris was under siege from October by occupying Prussian troops. This led to a radicalisation within the city, which was greatly strengthened in the new year when the existing government made peace with the Prussians in return for the siege being lifted. The French government refused to return to Paris, staying in Versailles until the militant population was disarmed. This led to the revolution on 18 March which established the Paris Commune.

The Commune was the first ever attempt at working class revolutionary government and was therefore of critical importance to Marx and Engels. They saw it as a model for a workers’ state: representatives were elected and accountable, the whole working population was involved in politics and decision making, and perhaps most importantly there were attempts to set up a form of state power or armed rule in opposition to the army and police of the old capitalist state. The Commune was real democracy in action.

Its life span was short. Just two months after its inception the Commune was once again besieged, this time by the Versailles government’s army. The Commune was put down after over a week of the bloodiest fighting imaginable: thousands were killed by counter-revolutionaries and many more were exiled or deported.

During the Commune’s closing days Marx set about writing one of his best known works, The Civil War in France, which was commissioned by the General Council of the International. It was delivered verbally to the General Council meeting on 30 May and then printed as a pamphlet.

Here Marx spelt out his ideas on the capitalist state and how the crushing of the Commune represented the most basic class instincts not just of the French bourgeoisie, but of its counterparts elsewhere: ‘Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national governments are one as against the proletariat!’ [73] The Commune was a new form of democracy, ‘a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time’. [74] Education was open to all and free from religious or state interference. Public functionaries were paid workmen’s wages. Judges and magistrates were accountable and elected. The army and conscription were abolished, replaced by a National Guard made up of all citizens. Elections were by universal male suffrage.

The crucial lesson of the Commune for Marx was that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’. [75] Instead revolutionaries had to be prepared to smash the old capitalist state, which was there to protect the capitalist class and its property, and to establish in its place a workers’ state, based on the most complete form of democracy and on new forms of power: a workers’ militia which could protect the gains of the revolution and ensure that the capitalists did not regain power. This, Engels said, was what he and Marx meant by ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. [76]

The need for a completely new form of state was vindicated by the terrible events with which the Commune met its end. The attempt to storm heaven by the Communards was destroyed in the most bloody way by the men – and women – of property. It became the habit of fashionable women to go and watch the execution of many thousands of Communards in the days following its defeat.

There were demonstrations of solidarity with the Commune among workers in many different countries. The workers’ movement internationally saw the Commune’s defeat as a blow to them all. Conversely, the rulers of all the capitalist powers took heart from the smashing of this first workers’ government, and themselves launched a witch hunt against the International. In 1872 membership of the International became a punishable offence in France. Similarly repressive measures were considered elsewhere, and Bismarck proposed a European alliance against the International. [77]

The backlash led to the fracturing of the International. The English trade union leaders Odger and Lucraft left the organisation which they had helped to found because they objected to The Civil War in France. In fact, they were out of sympathy with the whole experience of the Commune, which was far too revolutionary for their cautious reformist politics. On the other hand, Marx and Engels now found a full scale battle on their hands with the Russian anarchist Bakunin, who they suspected of having joined the International in order to wreck its organisation.

Marx and Engels therefore spent the remainder of 1871 and much of 1872 on two tasks: organising relief work and political solidarity with the refugees from the Commune, many of whom fled to London, and fighting against the influence of Bakunin and his followers in the International.

To this end they held a closed conference in September 1871, which Marx and his supporters were able to dominate because so few of their opponents turned up. They argued strongly for a centralised organisation against the decentralising tendencies of Bakunin. In the months that followed the debates continued, with Engels – responsible for corresponding with Italy and Spain – spending a great deal of time trying to win more influence for his and Marx’s ideas in areas where Bakunin and his supporters were relatively strong.

Things came to a head at the Hague conference in 1872, which Engels was largely responsible for organising and where he still pushed for strengthening the General Council so that it could, if necessary, discipline or control the various sections, and so that it could provide some impetus to the formation of independent working class parties throughout Europe which were firmly committed to revolutionary upheaval.

Opposition to Marx and Engels again came from two sources: the English trade union leaders did not want a tight revolutionary disciplined organisation because this cut across their pragmatic and timid politics, and they did not want to be tied to a political line. The anarchists on the other hand also wanted decentralisation because it gave them more influence, and also because it fitted better with their denial of the state and its importance. At the Hague conference the English trade union leaders preferred to back the anarchists.

But despite the trade union leaders’ attitude Engels realised that the majority of delegates would vote with him and Marx. He argued that Bakunin was in fact organising a centralised secret conspiracy, quite against the interests and spirit of the International. Engels then pushed the question of Bakunin’s secret organisation into a subcommittee, managed to win the expulsion of Bakunin and his ally Guillaume, and then proposed the removal of the General Council to New York. From America it was unable to influence events in Europe and was much less prey to internal intrigue.

The last days of the First International, like any infighting on the left, are not its best testament. Engels and Marx did what they thought necessary because they saw no way of salvaging the International. The course of the class struggle had been on the rise in the latter half of the 1860s. The bloody reaction which followed the defeat of the Commune left the revolutionaries much as they had been after 1848. Left wing circles were dominated by internal squabbles and had less and less contact with reality. Marx and Engels were under attack from all sides. All that they could see to do was to allow the First International to die a natural death and wait for a new rise in class struggle which would enable international socialist organisation to be rebuilt. This time it would take nearly 20 years and Engels would be undertaking the task without Marx, and with a new generation of socialists.

The end of an era

Engels now lived in London, and so was able to collaborate much more closely with Marx, as his increased intervention in the International between 1870 and 1872 demonstrated. He continued his military writing and interests, and was given the nickname of ‘the General’ by the Marx family because of his skill and enthusiasm in military matters.

He also began a number of other works. He started work on his book The Dialectics of Nature in 1873, although he continued to write notes for it over a number of years and it was never completed. It represented an attempt to apply his philosophical ideas to the study of science. [78] But perhaps his most important writing in these years was a polemic against the ideas of one man who was becoming increasingly influential inside the German socialist movement and whom Engels and Marx regarded as a dangerous miseducator of even some of the most experienced socialists.

The background to the argument was the Franco-Prussian War and the collapse of the Commune. This was a watershed in European politics. Germany replaced France as the pivotal continental European power. This had its impact on the workers’ movements in various countries. They tended to develop stable nationally based parties, often oriented to the parliamentary structures which had also emerged at this time. This was true above all in Germany, where two socialist groups – those influenced by Marx and those influenced by the ideas of Lassalle – merged in the 1870s to form what became the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the most powerful socialist party in the world. The party participated from its inception in the new parliament created as a result of German unification.

Marx and Engels were extremely critical of the German socialists. The party’s unity programme, moved at the Gotha conference in 1875, was subject to a critique by Marx because it accepted a number of non-Marxist concepts, such as the idea that all other classes apart from the working class were ‘one reactionary mass’. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx argued that socialists should not dismiss all other classes as incapable of struggling against the system. [79] At various points in their lives Marx and Engels were prepared to ally with even bourgeois parties against reactionary feudalism, and very often with various petty bourgeois organisations and tendencies.

The ‘one reactionary mass’ formulation came from the supporters of the socialist Lassalle, who despite his rhetoric against all other classes, had in practice favoured alliance with the Bismarckian monarchy against the bourgeois opposition.

Hal Draper has described how, for Marx and Engels, the petty bourgeoisie had to be viewed as capable of both reactionary and progressive political action. They considered that the programme of the German party would lead to sectarianism. Both the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry (the urban and rural sectors of the class) are ‘classes that are on the decline and reactionary in relation to the proletariat as soon as they aspire to maintain themselves artificially’, wrote Engels:

But they are not reactionary under all social conditions; not all sectors of the class are equally reactionary under the same conditions; different sectors and groups might vary widely on different issues; and last but not least, the difference must always be borne in mind between parties and groups based on this class and the possibilities of recruiting the rank and file of the class or of parts of it, in a fight against their own parties. In other words, we enter the realm of intelligent political leadership of a broad revolutionary movement that is striving to reach out, without compromising its own politics, as against the wooden drill of a self-pickling sect. [80]

The tendency to reformism, to accommodation with the German state, was apparent to Marx and Engels from the Gotha programme. However it is also clear that the theoretical level of the German party was low. In the early 1870s it attracted all sorts of people and the party did not always have a clear understanding of how to win them to revolutionary politics. Marx’s best known biographer, from the next generation of German socialists, Franz Mehring, has written of the party in the mid-1870s:

It was the rapid growth of its practical successes which made the new party indifferent to theory, and even that is saying too much. They were not indifferent to theory as such, but rather to what, in their vigorous advance, they regarded as theoretical hair-splitting. Unappreciated inventors and misunderstood reformers, anti-vaccinationists, nature healers and similar cranks flocked to the standards of the new party because they hoped to find in the active ranks of the working class the recognition which had been denied them in the bourgeois world. Whoever showed good-will and offered some remedy for the sick body politic was sure of a welcome, particularly those who came from academic circles and whose presence promised to seal the alliance between the proletariat and science. A university professor who befriended or seemed to befriend socialism in one or the other of its manifold interpretations, had no need to fear any very strict criticism of his intellectual stock in trade. [81]

Engels’s Anti-Dühring, a critique of the ideas of Dr Eugen Dühring, has to be seen against this background. He and Marx were extremely perturbed at the influence Dühring had on even the intellectuals of the party such as the young Eduard Bernstein. Anti-Dühring started as a series of articles in the German party’s publication Vorwärts in 1877. The articles came under attack from within the party itself. The tone of Engels’ articles and their content were regarded by some as ‘objectionable’ and they were relegated to the paper’s scientific supplement. [82]

However, Engels persevered, and this polemic became central to turning the ideas of Marx into reality for a new generation of socialists who held Marx and Engels in great esteem but who knew little of their theoretical ideas. Although it was soon banned in Germany, a section of the book was published as a popular pamphlet, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, which was translated into various European languages and sold widely. It was and remains one of the best and most easily understood introductions to Marxist ideas.

Engels describes how the great Utopian socialists, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, derived their ideas from the rationalist thinking of the Enlightenment, which culminated in the great French Revolution. They expressed the disappointment felt at the political and social institutions which came out of the revolution. According to Engels, ‘Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason.’ [83] He describes how this sort of socialism dominated the earliest socialist thinkers:

To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. [84]

Yet socialist thought had to move beyond moral outrage with capitalism and exhortations for change to an understanding of how that change could be brought about. Socialism became a science, according to Engels, with the development of the materialist conception of history and with the understanding that the basis of capitalist accumulation is the exploitation of workers:

The socialism of earlier days certainly criticised the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad.

With the ideas of Marx, ‘socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie’. [85] A system which should have been able to make life easier for all of humanity instead made it far more wretched for many, while a minority benefited:

Machinery, the most powerful instrument for shortening labour time, becomes the most unfailing means for placing every moment of the labourer’s time and that of his family at the disposal of the capitalist … the overwork of some becomes the preliminary condition for the idleness of others … Accumulation of wealth at one pole is … accumulation of misery at the other pole. [86]

Moreover, the constant development of newer and more powerful machinery, which is central to the accumulation of capital, produces great wealth but leads eventually to crisis: ‘markets are glutted, products accumulate … hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed, and the mass of workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence.’ [87]

The only way out of this crisis is the socialisation of the means of production, a solution which, says Engels, even the capitalist system half recognises, with its increased attempts to regulate the free market by monopoly, nationalisation and state intervention. But genuine socialism can only come about when the working class seizes control of the means of production. [88]

The success of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific helped to establish Marx and Engels’ reputation among a new generation of socialists internationally. However, the political problems which Marx and Engels encountered in their dealings with the German party did not disappear. In 1879 the Anti-Socialist Law was passed by Bismarck in response to the growing strength of the party. In fact, the law did not harm the party’s growth, but its leaders responded to restrictions on their activity in the most compromising and mealy mouthed way. Its parliamentary group followed a policy of adaptation, and its leader, Wilhelm Liebknecht, declared in the Reichstag (parliament) that the SPD would obey the law. Marx said of the parliamentary group of socialists that ‘they are already so far affected by parliamentary idiotism that they think they are above criticism’. [89]

Engels in particular was angry with the leadership of the German party at the time. He felt attacked unjustifiably over Anti-Dühring and also believed that residual ‘Lassalleanism’ kept showing through in the party’s politics. He considered that the advice that he and Marx had given was not readily accepted by the German party and that this often led it to opportunist and even reformist tendencies, as over the Anti-Socialist Law. Although a visit to London by August Bebel in 1880 helped allay his fears, the German party remained a source of worry to Engels for the rest of his life.

Lizzie Burns had died in 1878, and had become Engels’ wife on her deathbed. Three years later Marx’s wife, Jenny, also died, to be followed just over a year later by her eldest daughter, Jenny. Marx had long been in bad health, as his correspondence frequently testified, but these deaths had a terrible effect on him. His health deteriorated further, despite convalescent trips to Algeria and the Isle of Wight. He developed a tumour on the lung and died on 14 March 1883, just two months after his eldest daughter and a few days before his grandson, the four year old Harry Longuet, who is buried in Marx’s grave.

Engels was there at the time of death and wrote the next day to their old friend in America, Frederick Adolph Sorge, ‘Mankind is shorter by a head, and that the greatest head of our time’. [90] He spoke at Marx’s graveside where he stated that ‘just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history’. He went on to reaffirm their revolutionary commitment:

For Marx was above all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another; to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being … Fighting was his element … And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. [91]

After Marx

The void in Engels’ life following the death of Marx must have been great, but he was not the sort of person to allow it to prevent him from carrying on the work to which the two men had always devoted their energies. Therefore Engels’ final years – he was to live another 12 years after Marx – were as full and demanding as any in his younger life. His life in those years was devoted to arguing for, explaining and clarifying Marx’s ideas; working on the remaining volumes of Capital which would probably never have seen the light of day if it were not for Engels; looking after the Marx daughters, Laura and Eleanor; and advising those trying to build organisations in various countries, especially in Germany and Britain.

Engels’ theoretical production never diminished. Indeed in 1884 he published one of his best known books, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which drew on anthropological writings to trace the course of women’s oppression throughout class society. This was a pathbreaking book in more ways than one. Not only did it tie the development of family forms and structures to the rise of private property held by a particular class in society, it also demonstrated a completely egalitarian attitude towards women. Throughout his life Engels saw women’s oppression as an unnatural product of property relations which would disappear once those property relations disappeared. He therefore developed a view which set him well in advance of even liberal commentators in Victorian England, who all too often saw women as weak beings who had to be protected, rather than as equals. [92]

Much of volume II of Capital had been completed before Marx’s death, and Engels was able to write an introduction to it by 1885. He was only able to publish the final volume nearly ten years later, just before he died in 1895, and much of that had to be written from scratch. His task was made harder since much of the data on which it was based was ten or 15 years old.

The desire to finish Capital may be one reason that Engels stayed in England, rather than return to his native Germany or to German speaking Switzerland. He often stressed that he felt able to continue his theoretical studies better in London than in Germany or Switzerland. He was also much less directly involved in the workers’ movement in Britain than he would have been in Germany. Indeed, Engels was fairly isolated from the working class movement – in contrast to his youth when he was involved with the Chartists, the Communist League and later with the International. In part this reflected what had happened to the working class movement over the intervening two decades – although the passivity and lack of struggle among English workers began to change in the last years of Engels’ life.

He also had a number of strong personal commitments in England: to Helene Demuth, the lifelong friend and servant of the Marx family, and like them a committed socialist – she spent the last years of her life as housekeeper to Engels in Regent’s Park Road; to ‘Pumps’ (Mary Ellen) Burns, niece of Mary and Lizzie, who with her husband and family was also ensconced there much of the time; and to the Marx daughters. Laura lived with her husband the French socialist Paul Lafargue in Paris, but Eleanor lived in London, in a relationship with the socialist Edward Aveling from 1883.

Engels treated them with the utmost affection and generosity, tact and sympathy, and smoothed many problems, such as Laura’s unhappiness that Eleanor, not she, was one of her father’s executors. Right up until his death, he provided them with money and left them both enough in his will to provide for them for the rest of their lives. Engels took all this as a matter of course, just as he had supported Marx throughout his life. He also defended them from attack – an impulse which he generously extended to Edward Aveling, who had a bad personal reputation but whom Engels always regarded as one of the most able socialists in Britain.

Rebirth of the English socialist movement

When Engels had first come to England in the early 1840s, his enthusiasm for the English working class movement knew no bounds. The Chartist movement was the most advanced in Europe. But the defeat of Chartism after 1848 and the ensuing dominance inside the working class movement of a layer of skilled trade union leaders led him to change his views. The experience of the First International reinforced these later views that the English working class movement – or at least its leaders – were narrow, parochial and all too willing to do deals with the bourgeois Liberal Party, rather than form their own independent workers’ party. So Engels could write to Eduard Bernstein in 1879:

The workers are divided politically into Conservatives and Liberal Radicals, into supporters of the Disraeli Cabinet and supporters of the Gladstone Cabinet. One can therefore speak of a labour movement only in so far as strikes take place here, which, whether they are won or not, do not get the movement one step further. [93]

He wrote in even more scathing vein to the German socialist Karl Kautsky:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, you see, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals … [94]

Things began to change around the time of Marx’s death. Engels himself had started to write articles in the London Trades Council paper the Labour Standard in 1881, in which he called for the establishment of a workers’ political party rather than just trade union organisation – a call which led to his departure from the paper. [95] Soon afterwards came the establishment of tenuous socialist organisation in Britain. The Democratic Federation, led by H.M. Hyndman, was a coming together of various radical organisations. It developed in a socialist – as opposed to Liberal – direction. In 1884 it renamed itself the Social Democratic Federation, with a socialist programme and widespread support, especially among young trade unionists who were to become famous later in the decade for their role in leading strikes.

But the SDF soon split. Its departing members cited Hyndman’s opportunism coupled with his authoritarian behaviour – and set up the Socialist League in the beginning of 1885. The signatories to its founding statement included some of the best known names of English socialism such as Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, William Morris, Belfort Bax and John Lincoln Mahon. Their quarrel with Hyndman was understandable: he had irritated Marx with his frequent visits during the last years of his life, and irritated Engels as somebody who although he had read Capital did not grasp the essentials of Marxism. Neither had he broken fully from his own bourgeois background and ideas, in particular suffering from a degree of national chauvinism which coloured his socialism, and so was indeed capable of the opportunism of which he was accused. The SDF concentrated on abstract propaganda, did not see the relevance of strikes and was incapable of grasping many of the opportunities which came its way. Engels regarded it as a sect: ‘It has not understood how to take the lead of the working class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy’. [96] But the SDF did attempt to popularise Marx’s ideas, in however distorted a way, to a new generation of socialists. Hyndman’s book England for All was an attempt to put forward Marx’s ideas (although without crediting them).

The Socialist League, despite high hopes, did not really fare any better. Its reaction to opportunism was to stress abstract propaganda for socialism still further and just wait for the revolution. It was distrustful of ‘palliatives’ which could in any way improve the condition of workers under capitalism. The League was therefore unable to combine its vision of socialism with a support for the day to day struggles which could enable it to win workers to its broader vision, unable to combine its theory with any practice. Those who did engage in activity found themselves doing so as individuals, not as part of a supportive organisation. So Eleanor Marx and Aveling were heavily involved in free speech and assembly activity in the East End of London from the mid-1880s, but increasingly felt estranged from the League and eventually left it. The League became more influenced by anarchism than Marxism.

A third group of socialists came into being in the mid-1880s: the Fabians. Unlike the other groups the Fabians exclusively attracted the educated middle classes, not workers. At first some of its members were sympathetic to left wing ideas, but the increasing class conflict in evidence in the second half of the 1880s, especially the unemployed riots in 1886 and the fighting in Trafalgar Square in 1887, led their leaders to move consciously away from any flirtation with revolutionary change and towards the theory of gradualism which eventually influenced the Labour Party.

Engels kept fairly aloof from these movements, although he was far from aloof from the activities which took place in these years. He did not play an active role himself, but worked closely with Eleanor and Aveling, and can be assumed to have agreed with the thrust of their politics in the various disputes which took place. He was sceptical about the fortunes of the early British socialists, as his comments in 1886 demonstrate:

Here the lack of any competition, on the one hand, and the government’s stupidity, on the other; have enabled the gentlemen of the Social Democratic Federation to occupy a position which they did not dare to dream of three months ago … The labour movement is beginning here and no mistake, and if the SDF is the first to reap the harvest that is the result of the cowardice of the radicals and the stupidity of the Socialist League, which is squabbling with the anarchists and cannot get rid of them, and hence has no time to concern itself with the living movement that is taking place outside under its very nose. Incidentally, how long Hyndman and Co will persist in their present comparatively rational mode of action is uncertain. Anyhow I expect that they will soon commit colossal blunders again; they’re in too much of a hurry’. [97]

Engels still had much more contact with socialists from abroad than from England, and his regular Sunday dinners were a gathering place for German socialists in London. [98] But he became increasingly enthusiastic about the class struggle in Britain as the decade came to an end. The movement of the New Unions began in 1888 and spread like wildfire for the next three years. It was a movement from below, led by the supposedly unorganisable: the women, the unskilled, the Irish. All had been excluded from the existing unions by the skilled craftsmen who dominated them. These union leaders were timid and conservative. In 1886 Tom Mann, a socialist engineer who went on to lead the dockers’ strike which was so central to the New Unionism, wrote this of the old unions:

None of the important societies have any policy other than that of endeavouring to keep wages from falling. The true unionist policy of aggression seems entirely lost sight of, in fact the average unionist of today is a man with a fossilised intellect, either hopelessly apathetic, or supporting a policy that plays directly into the hands of the capitalist exploiter … I take my share of the work of the trade union to which I belong; but I candidly confess that unless it shows more vigour at the present time, I shall be compelled to take the view – against my will – that to continue to spend time over the ordinary squabble-investigating, do-nothing policy will be an unjustifiable waste of one’s energies. I am sure there are thousands of others in my state of mind. [99]

The misery caused by economic depression, the increasing attacks by the police on demonstrators and campaigners for civil liberties in 1886 and 1887, the lack of any political or economic voice for the bulk of the working class suddenly exploded. The match girls’ strike at the Bryant and May factory in east London, following an exposé of their terrible conditions by the radical Annie Besant in the Link newspaper, was a terrible shock to respectable opinion, and was widely supported throughout the working class. The match girls won their demands.

The women’s strike was followed by that of the gas workers, led by Will Thorne (whom Eleanor Marx taught to read and write) and then by the London dockers’ strike for their ‘tanner’ increase, led by the socialists John Burns and Tom Mann. Other strikes followed in all the sweated, unskilled trades – shops, transport, food industries. They also affected the unionised sections of the working class, who themselves became more militant.

The New Unionism was notable for a number of features: it started in the East End of London, the poorest and most politically backward slum in Britain; the strikes were frequently led by socialists who had agitated in the East End and elsewhere in small numbers in the years before struggle broke out; and the level of political generalisation was high. Engels made all these points in a letter sent to his old friend Sorge at the end of 1889:

The people are … drawing far greater masses into the struggle, shaking up society far more profoundly, and putting forward much more far reaching demands: the eight hour day, a general federation of all organisations and complete solidarity. Through Tussy [Eleanor Marx], the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union has got women’s branches for the first time. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands as only provisional, although they themselves do not yet know toward what final goal they are working. But this vague notion has a strong enough hold on them to make them elect as leaders only downright Socialists. [100]

The success of the agitation was shown in the mass May Day demonstration organised around the theme of the Eight Hour Day in 1890. Despite sectarian opposition from some of the old union leaders around the London Trades Council, hundreds of thousands went to Hyde Park – organised through a committee including the Avelings. Engels was on one of the speakers’ platforms and was full of enthusiasm for the event, which he saw as symbolising the reawakening of the working class. [101]

There were moves afoot for a political voice for labour, motivated especially by the Scottish socialist Keir Hardie. The Liberal Party had always been supposed to represent working people in parliament but when the great disputes of the New Unionism blew up, they were often in opposition to Liberal employers or their supporters: such were the owners of Bryant and May, the shipowners and the bosses of Manningham Mill who broke their workers’ strike in 1891. As the strike movement subsided and the employers’ offensive grew in the early 1890s, so the appeal of the Independent Labour Party grew. It was an appeal which Engels initially welcomed, because it was based on working people, it was oriented away from the sectarian squabbles of the old left and it seemed to have the chance to develop into a mass socialist party. However, it never really involved all the different socialist groupings, was racked with divisions and did fairly badly electorally in its early years. Most importantly, it was completely unclear theoretically and politically, rejecting Marxism and putting its emphasis on educating workers towards socialism rather than on struggle. By the mid-1890s the ILP became much closer to the gradualist Fabians:

Thus, when the great upsurge of the late ’eighties and early ’nineties began to die away, the old ideas of bourgeois Liberal reformism reasserted themselves in a form more suitable to the level which the movement, both political and industrial, had now reached. [102]

The final years

Engels was 70 years old in 1890. Eleanor Marx, writing on his 70th birthday for a Viennese socialist paper, said:

He carries his six foot odd so lightly … and although Engels looks young he is even younger than he looks. He is really the youngest man I know. As far as I can remember he has not grown any older in the last 20 hard years. [103]

At the birthday celebration guests were ‘all regaled with claret and champagne until half past three in the morning, when twelve dozen oysters were consumed’. [104] Among the guests were the German socialists Liebknecht, Bebel and Singer. The international links between the socialists were growing by now, given a boost by the founding of the Second International, the first congress of which took place in Paris in 1889, on the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Engels was instrumental in ensuring that the Congress took place. Before its very inception there was such division amongst the left that two international conferences were planned in Paris for the same time. His attempts to ensure that the Congress was an open public conference and that it was a means of launching a campaign for an eight hour day internationally were all important, and he worked very closely with Eleanor Marx, who was central to its organisation, although he did not attend himself.

The growth of socialist organisations, often under the influence of at least some form of Marxism, meant that Engels’ advice was much in demand. He became close friends with Victor Adler, a leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, who visited him in London, and also corresponded with socialists in countries as far apart as Russia and Portugal. The leaders of the emerging movement looked to him as the embodiment of a revolutionary tradition stretching back before 1848 – and as one of the last survivors of his generation.

A sign of this recognition came at the Zurich International Socialist conference in 1893. Yet again this was one of two conferences – the other called by the English trade unions in London, which Engels saw as a political challenge to the more advanced continental socialists. Engels managed to get the English conference cancelled by urging the German, Austrian and French trade unions to pass resolutions demanding one conference. Engels used the occasion to revisit Germany after many years and turned up only near the end of the Congress. He was feted by the international delegates and made the closing speech to the Congress. Engels’ lifelong modesty was evident here as elsewhere:

The unexpectedly magnificent welcome you have given me and which I could not but receive with deep emotion, I accept not in my personal capacity but as the collaborator of the great man whose portrait you have here. It is just 50 years ago that Marx and I came into the movement, when we wrote the first socialist articles for the Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher. From the small sects of the time, socialism has since developed into a powerful party making the officials of the whole world tremble. Marx has died, but were he still alive there would be no one in Europe and America who could look back upon his life’s work with such justifiable pride. [105]

But Engels found that despite the growth of these parties there was a danger within them – that their very success could hide theoretical and political problems. His concern was always that they should develop into proper mass workers’ parties, as opposed to the sects with no real roots in the class struggle which had so often dominated the left. He was therefore always extremely critical of anarchist tendencies, and took the side of the German party when it was faced with an anarchist splinter in the 1890s. But the stress that he put, quite rightly, on the need to work through the unions and parliament, the need to build up a mass base, could easily lead the German party to an opportunist accommodation with the system.

The arguments that broke out after Engels’ death in favour of ‘revisionism’ – led by the theoretician Eduard Bernstein – had their seed in the years before. The idea that the system would simply expand without contradiction and would therefore yield up the fruits of socialism almost as a matter of course were there, in Engels’ view, in the revised programme put to the German party’s 1891 conference. Engels had always been very bitter about the suppression by Liebknecht of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. He was even more furious when that programme came to be revised after the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Law that no acknowledgement of past mistakes, or of Marx’s critique, was made by the party’s leaders.

He therefore took it upon himself to publish the Critique so that young comrades in Germany and elsewhere could see what Marxism was really supposed to mean in practice. In the process he attacked the tendencies towards opportunism in parts of the socialist press. His fears were well grounded since opportunism later became a dominant tendency inside the party. Even while Engels was still alive, his writing was subject to censorship by the party, when party leaders deleted references that he had written to the violent overthrow of society. [106]

In Engels’ final years he found no respite from the demands for theoretical clarification which had dominated his life. ‘In the last five years of his life Engels had some 135 works of greater or lesser importance to his credit’. He read seven daily papers (three German, two English, one Austrian and one Italian) and 19 weeklies in a variety of languages. [107] His most important work in these years was volume III of Capital which he wrote largely from scratch.

But he was also concerned to keep up with current debates and politics and to try to understand a very rapidly changing world. Sometimes he succeeded admirably. Engels was always very clear, for example, about the role that nationalisation played in the modern capitalist economy. He saw that state control of railways, the postal system and other means of communication was vital to the efficient accumulation of capital by the ruling class. He was scathing about those who equated such state control with some form of socialism. [108]

He also had a very good picture of the course and level of class struggle in a whole number of countries. But he was sometimes less accurate on changed conditions in other matters, particularly where he had taken a certain position in his youth. For example, he still thought that a defensive war by Germany against the Russian Empire might be necessary. In the 1840s Germany was an emerging nation which was fighting for unification and national identity. Russia was regarded as the most reactionary bastion of feudalism in Europe, which did its utmost to foster national divisions and to prevent revolution.

But the balance of forces changed after the Franco-Prussian War, when Germany became the fastest growing industrial and imperial power, gradually rivalling even Britain. Whereas German socialists would earlier have supported war against Russia, by the 1890s this meant siding with their own imperialist ruling class. Yet Engels still clung to the idea that in certain circumstances there could be a justified defensive war, for which German socialists would have to vote war credits. His ‘argument was to be parroted with disastrous effect in 1914 by the same party leaders who censored Engels’ other writings when the German socialists supported their ruling class in the imperialist First World War and, indeed, voted them war credits. [109]

However, the fact that Engels said or wrote things that could later be turned against revolutionary socialists can in no way diminish his record as a revolutionary. His activity spanned a huge period from the Chartists through to the birth of the modern trade unions. He lived through some of the biggest changes in the development of capitalism, nowhere more so than in Germany. He left his imprint on the socialist movement in both Europe and America. Despite his desire to always take a back seat, he was a man of huge talents. He never became a mere commentator, or a fossilised armchair socialist but was always inspired and enthused by the activities of workers and the oppressed. His writings on a range of subjects demonstrate his tremendous knowledge and interest in science, the military and, perhaps most importantly, history. Engels’ historical writings show a real grasp of the subject and a style which makes them widely accessible.

He made his last public speech at the Zurich conference. He continued his activity and writing but became ill at the beginning of 1895, with cancer of the throat. He died on 5 August. Engels was cremated at a funeral attended by the leaders of the German, Austrian and French parties, by the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich and the English gas workers’ leader Will Thorne. His ashes were scattered in the sea six miles out from Eastbourne by Eleanor Marx. The attendance at his funeral shows how Engels was able to carry the spirit of the founders of revolutionary socialism and of the 1848 revolutions to the next generation of socialists.


1. G. Mayer, Frederick Engels (London 1936), p. 208.

2. Ibid., pp. 56–57.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Quoted in F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Moscow 1973), p. 313.

5. Quoted in G. Mayer, op. cit., p. 49.

6. F. Engels, op. cit., p. 60.

7. Ibid., pp. 111–112.

8. Ibid., p. 120.

9. Ibid., p. 167.

10. Ibid., p. 162.

11. Ibid., p. 312.

12. Ibid., p. 261.

13. Ibid., pp. 333–334.

14. Ibid., p. 11.

15. F. Engels, On the History of the Communist League in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works (London 1968), p. 436.

16. G. Mayer, op. cit., pp. 59–60.

17. F. Mehring, Karl Marx (Sussex 1981), p. 93.

18. Ibid., p. 95.

19. K. Marx and F. Engels, Correspondence 1844–1851 (London 1982), p. 4.

20. Ibid., p. 20.

21. G. Mayer, op. cit., p. 69.

22. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (London 1965), pp. 37–38.

23. Ibid., pp. 55–56.

24. Ibid., p. 50.

25. Ibid., p. 60.

26. Ibid., pp. 61–62.

27. Ibid., p. 44.

28. Ibid., pp. 85–86.

29. Ibid., p. 503.

30. K. Marx and F. Engels, Correspondence, op. cit., p. 82.

31. O.J. Hammen, The Red 48ers (New York 1969), p. 160.

32. F. Engels, Principles of Communism (Peking 1977), p. 3.

33. Ibid., p. 8.

34. K. Marx and F. Engels, Communist Manifesto (Tirana 1981), p. 34.

35. F. Engels, Principles, op. cit., p. 11.

36. K. Marx and F. Engels, Communist Manifesto, op. cit., p. 25.

37. O.J. Hammen, op. cit., p. 187.

38. K. Marx and F. Engels, Correspondence. op. cit., p. 54.

39. Ibid., pp. 159–160.

40. Ibid., p. 165.

41. E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (London 1977), p. 22.

42. K. Marx in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 29 June 1848, reprinted in D. Fernbach (ed.), The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth 1973), p. 131.

43. Article in Deutsch-Brüsseler Zeitung, 23 January 1848, quoted in G. Mayer, op. cit., p. 88.

44. Article in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 29 June 1848, reproduced in D. Fernbach, op. cit..

45. Quoted in O.J. Hammen, op. cit., p. 234.

46. Ibid., p. 236.

47. Ibid., p. 250.

48. F. Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 16 February 1849, reprinted in D. Fernbach, op. cit., p. 239.

49. F. Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849, reprinted in D. Fernbach, op. cit., pp. 216–217.

50. F. Mehring, op. cit., p. 164.

51. The most detailed criticism from a Marxist point of view comes from R. Rosdolsky in Engels and the Non-historic Peoples: the National Question in the Revolution of 1848, (Glasgow 1986).

52. T. Carver, Frederick Engels: His Life and Thought (Basingstoke 1989), p. 201.

53. K. Marx and F. Engels, Correspondence, op. cit., p. 211.

54. K. Marx and F. Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850), printed in D. Fernbach, op. cit., p. 330.

55. L. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (New York 1962).

56. K. Marx and F. Engels, Correspondence, op. cit., p. 241.

57. Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol. 1, p. 112.

58. Quoted in T. Carver, op. cit., p. 155.

59. See G. Mayer, op. cit., pp. 171–174 and T Carver, op. cit., pp. 153–155, for different interpretations of the correspondence.

60. T Carver, op. cit., p. 159.

61. Y. Kapp, op. cit., p. 113.

62. Quoted in ibid., p. 114.

63. T. Carver, op. cit., and The Daughters of Karl Marx (London 1984).

64. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 39 (Moscow 1983), pp. 434–435.

65. Letter from Marx to Engels in Selected Correspondence (Moscow 1982), p. 114.

66. Ibid., pp. 126–127.

67. Ibid., p. 125.

68. Ibid., p. 140.

69. Ibid., p. 163.

70. Ibid., p. 168.

71. Ibid., p. 180.

72. Ibid., p. 209.

73. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Civil War in France in Selected Works, op. cit., p. 306.

74. Ibid., p. 287.

75. Ibid., p. 285.

76. F. Engels, Introduction, ibid., p. 259.

77. D. Fernbach introduction to K. Marx, The First International and After (London 1974), p. 43.

78. See the article by John Rees in this volume.

79. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, op. cit..

80. H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. II (London 1978), pp. 308–309.

81. F. Mehring, Karl Marx (Sussex 1981), p. 5l1.

82. Ibid., p. 512.

83. F. Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific in Selected Works, op. cit., p. 398.

84. Ibid., p. 404.

85. Ibid., p. 410.

86. Ibid., pp. 418–419.

87. Ibid., p. 419.

88. Ibid., p. 422.

89. Letter from K. Marx to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, 19 September 1879, in Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 309.

90. Ibid., p. 340.

91. Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx in Selected Works, op. cit., pp. 429–430.

92. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State in Selected Works, op. cit., pp. 449–583. For a fuller view of this and other works by Engels on human origins see the chapter by Chris Harman in this volume.

93. Letter from F. Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, 17 June 1879, in Selected Works, op. cit., p. 301.

94. Letter from F. Engels to Karl Kautsky in Vienna, 12 September 1882, in Selected Works, op. cit., p. 678.

95. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, The British Labour Movement (London 1979), pp. 162–163.

96. H. Draper, op. cit., p. 120.

97. Letter from Engels to J. Adolph Sorge in Hoboken in Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 375.

98. Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol. II (New York 1976), pp. 212–213.

99. Quoted in E. Hobsbawm, Labour’s Turning Point (Brighton 1974), p. 72.

100. Engels to Sorge in London, 7 December 1889, in Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 385.

101. Y. Kapp, Vol. II, op. cit., pp. 377–380.

102. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, op. cit., p. 204.

103. Y. Kapp, Vol, II, op. cit., p. 423.

104. Ibid., p. 425.

105. Ibid., p. 549.

106. Engels’ Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France was abridged for publication in Die Neue Zeit. For details see chapter by John Rees in this volume. For the introduction see K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 27 (London 1990), pp. 506–524.

107. Y. Kapp, op. cit., p. 446.

108. See F. Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific in Selected Works, op. cit., pp. 421–422.

109. C. Harman, Hidden Treasure, in Socialist Review 149 (London, January 1992), pp. 30–31. For a discussion on the argument about socialists and war see G. Mayer, op. cit., pp. 285–295.

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