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Engels: A Revolutionary Life

by John Green
2008; Paperback; 347pp; ISBN 978-0-9558228-0-3

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Tony Benn says of this book:
‘A new and popular biography of Marx’s friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, is long overdue and to be welcomed. He fought his life long for socialism, and most of those years were spent in Manchester and London. His life and his ideas on democracy, socialism and economics still have relevance for us today and can be an inspiration in a struggle that is never ending’.

 

 

Friedrich Engels was the Che Guevara of his day. Like Che, he also came from a privileged background, but rejected middle class privilege to devote himself to the struggle for the liberation of working people, for justice and socialism. As a young man he fought in the hills of southern Germany with a small band of like-minded guerrillas. After defeat, he fled Prussian persecution to settle in Britain, where he spent the rest of his life.

Instead of continuing his adventurous life as a full-time activist, he took on a double life in order to support his friend, Karl Marx. In the middle class citadels of Manchester, he was known as a staid, honest and respectable businessman, but clandestinely he devoted himself to the struggle for socialism. His and Marx’s ideas and his vision helped transform the 20th century world and still resonate today. In this fascinating new biography, the icon Engels is given flesh and blood, bringing his life and times vibrantly alive.



 

Engels: the Che Guevara of his time

Why should a Victorian-era political activist be of interest to us today? What relevance can ideas from 160 years ago have in today’s world of globalisation, environmental threats and increasing domination by trans-national corporations?

Most people, if they know of Engels at all, will probably recall an image of a black-bearded, rather stern-looking character, looking out from the pages of a dog-eared volume from the Marx-Engels Collected Works. He is invariably mentioned in the same breath as Karl Marx, but who is aware of his contribution to political thought? His own modesty and lack of ambition is much responsible for his historical eclipse. In typically self-effacing manner, he said: ‘All my life I did what I was made for, that is playing second fiddle and I believe I acquitted myself tolerably well. And I was happy in having so excellent a first violin as Marx.’

It is always dangerous to compare an individual from one historical era with one in another, but in Engels’ case a comparison with Che Guevara is very tempting. His early life has an uncanny resemblance to that of Che. He also rejected a comfortable privileged background, espousing the lot of the poor and the oppressed. In the few youthful images of Engels left to us, he has a remarkable physical resemblance to Che too – the good looks, wispy beard and long hair. He was tall with a trim, athletic figure and he stares out at us with that same confident, almost arrogant, and challenging look. As a young man he outdid his friends swimming rivers and careering around the countryside on horseback and he even fought duels for the thrill of it. In his twenties, as a hot-headed revolutionary, he joined a small band of revolutionary ‘guerrilleros’ in the wooded hills of southern Germany, fighting with passion and abandon the might of the Prussian Army, during the abortive revolution of 1848/49, before being forced to retreat across the Swiss border. He was then hounded across Europe by the Prussian state, placed top of its most wanted list, charged with high treason, and was harassed and spied upon.

From the mid-1850s onwards, Engels was acknowledged as the undisputed leader, alongside Marx, of the burgeoning revolutionary movement in Europe and was largely responsible for the setting up of communist cells of workers and intellectuals in most European countries.

For many years, he was obliged to lead two separate lives: one as a respectable middle class businessman in Manchester and the other as a semi-conspiratorial militant. It must be pretty unique for a businessman to serve Mammon by day and conspire for his downfall by night!     

Marx and Engels hit it off from the time of their first real meeting and formed a symbiotic and collaborative relationship that is unique in history. They became intimate friends and collaborated on almost everything they did in connection with the international workers’ movement. Engels is often dismissed simply as the ‘wealthy capitalist’ who kept the Marx family from descending into penury. Others have suggested that it was he who turned the ‘pure philosophy’ of Marx into dirty political pragmatism, but both attitudes do both men a profound disservice; he was undoubtedly Marx’s intellectual equal and made a significant creative contribution not only through his own writings, but to many that they jointly published, as well as to many of those published under Marx’s name alone.

Engels’ life is of also of particular interest because he was one of those very few political activists seemingly devoid of personal ambition or the quest for power – not unlike Che Guevara - he was an honest, principled and passionate man who’s every action was undertaken on behalf of his fellow human beings. He never attended university, but already in his teens was writing articles for newspapers and magazines of precocious erudition.

His book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written as a 24 year-old in 1844, after a year’s sojourn in Manchester, became a classic sociological study. While living and working in Manchester from 1850–70, he established strong links with leading left wing Chartists like Ernest Jones, James Leach and George Harney as well as the socialist philanthropist, Robert Owen and wrote regularly for their publications.

In his The Origin of the Family, Property and the State, Engels examined the development of human societies and how private property led to class differentiation and oppression. He was one of the first to show how the emergence of private property led to the oppression of women and the negative impact of this on social health. In this sense, he was a pioneering feminist.

On top of all his theoretical work, he was also an excellent organiser. In his younger years he travelled around Western Europe setting up and supporting socialist and communist groups and conducting Marxist education classes. Later, with Marx, he was instrumental in establishing the International Working Men’s Association as a worldwide organisation.

Engels and Marx were the first to demonstrate the key role of economics in the historical process – something to which most historians today at least pay lip-service if little more. They developed the key methodology of historical materialism, which is a vital tool in helping us better understand our own history. Without that understanding our present can make no sense and our future is, as Fidel Castro put it: ‘like wandering in a dense forest without a compass’.  Marx and Engels provided us with a compass – we just need to use it if we are to successfully forge a better future.

 

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