Friedrich Engels understood even earlier than Karl Marx the centrality of the critique of political economy.
When the two first got to know each other, he had published many more articles – although it was his friend who was destined to become world-famous in this domain. Born in Germany 200 years ago, in Barmen (today suburb of Wuppertal), he was a very promising young man, whose father, a textile industrialist, had denied a chance to study at university and directed into his own firm. Engels had therefore taught himself, with a voracious appetite for knowledge, and he signed his pieces with a pseudonym to avoid conflict with his conservative, strongly religious family. He became an atheist, and the two years he spent in England – where he was sent at the age of twenty-two to work in Manchester, at the offices of the Ermen & Engels cotton mill – were decisive for the maturing of his political convictions. It was then that he personally observed the effects of privatization, capitalist exploitation of the proletariat and competition between individuals. He made contact with the Chartist movement and fell in love with an Irish working woman, Mary Burns, who played a key role in his development. A brilliant journalist, he published accounts in Germany of English social struggles and wrote for the English-speaking press about the social advances underway on the Continent.
In 1845 Engels published in German his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. The subtitle emphasized that it was based “on direct observation and genuine sources”, and he wrote in the preface that real knowledge of proletarian working and living conditions was “absolutely necessary to be able to provide solid ground for socialist theories”. It would have a sequel in many later surveys. An introductory dedication, “To the Working Class of England” further pointed out that his work “in the field” had given him direct, not abstract, “knowledge of the workers’ real lives”. He had never been discriminated against or “treated by them as a foreigner”, and he was happy to see that they were free of the “terrible curse of national narrowness and national arrogance”. In the same year, after the publication of The Holy Family (his first joint book with Marx), Engels went to England with his friend and was able to show him what he had earlier seen and understood there. Marx finally gave up the critique of post-Hegelian philosophy and began the long journey that led, twenty years later, to the first volume of Capital. Then the two friends wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and participated to the revolutions of 1848-1849, that ended with the success of the reaction.
In 1849 Engels returned to England and, like Marx, would remain there until his death. He became the “second violin”, as he put it, and in order to support himself and to help his friend (who was often without an income) he agreed to manage his father’s factory in Manchester, until 1870. Even during those twenty years, however, he never ceased to write. In 1850 he published The Peasant War in Germany, a history of the revolts in 1524-25, which sought to show how similar the middle-class behaviour at the time was to that of the petty bourgeoisie during the revolution of 1848-49, and how responsible it had been for the defeats incurred. He also wrote nearly a half of the five hundred articles that Marx contributed to the New-York Tribune between 1851 and 1862, in which he reported to the American public on the succession of wars in Europe. Not seldom he proved able to foresee developments and to anticipate the military strategies used on various fronts, earning for himself the sobriquet by which he was known to all his comrades: “the General”. His journalistic activity continued for a long time, and in 1870-71 he published his Notes on the Franco-Prussian War, a series of sixty articles for the English daily Pall Mall Gazette that analysed the military events preceding the Paris Commune. These received much appreciation and testified to his perspicacity on such matters.
Over the next fifteen years, Engels made his principal theoretical contributions in a series of occasional writings that opposed the positions of political opponents in the workers’ movement and sought to clarify controversial issues. The Anti-Dühring (1878), which he described as “a more or less connected exposition of the dialectical method and the communist world outlook”, became a crucial reference for the formation of Marxist doctrine. Although we need to distinguish between Engels’s works of popularization, in open polemic against the simplistic shortcuts of the time, and the vulgarization performed by the later generation of German Social Democracy, his recourse to the natural sciences opened the way to an evolutionary conception of social phenomena that diminished Marx’s more nuanced analyses. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a reworking of three chapters of Anti-Dühring for educational purposes, had an even greater impact than the original text. But despite its merits and the fact that it circulated almost as widely as the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Engels’s definitions of “science” and “scientific socialism” may be seen as an example of epistemological authoritarianism, subsequently used by the Marxist-Leninist vulgate to preclude any critical discussion of the theses of the “founders of communism”. The Dialectic of Nature, fragments of a project on which Engels worked with many interruptions between 1873 and 1883, has been the object of huge controversy. For some it was the cornerstone of Marxism, for others the main culprit in the birth of Soviet dogmatism. Today it should be read as an incomplete work, one that shows the limitations of Engels, but also the potential contained in his ecological critique. While his use of dialectics certainly reduced the theoretical and methodological complexity of Marx’s thought, it is not correct – as some have meanly and superficially done in the past – to hold it responsible for everything they do not like in Marx’s writings and to blame Engels alone for the theoretical errors or even practical defeats.
In 1884 Engels published Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, an analysis of the anthropological studies conducted by the American Lewis Morgan, who had discovered that matriarchal relations historically preceded patriarchal relations. For Engels, this was as important a revelation concerning the origins of humanity as “Darwin’s theory [was] for biology and Marx’s theory of surplus-value for political economy”. The family already contained the antagonisms that would later be developed in society and the state. The first class oppression to appear in human history “coincided with the oppression of the female sex by the male”. With regard to gender equality, as well as to anticolonial struggles, he never hesitated to uphold – and to expound with conviction – the cause of emancipation.
During the twelve years by which Engels survived Marx, he devoted himself to his friend’s literary bequest and to the leadership of the international workers’ movement. Not only did he succeed in preparing and publishing Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital; he also oversaw new editions of previously published works. In a new introduction to Class Struggles in France, composed a few months before his death, he elaborated a theory of revolution that tried to adapt to the new political scene in Europe. The proletariat had become the majority, he argued, and the prospect of taking power by electoral means, though universal suffrage, made it possible to defend revolution and legality at the same time. This did not mean, however – as the German Social Democrats suggested by manipulating his text in a legalistic, reformist sense – that the “fight on the streets” no longer had any function. It meant that the revolution could not be conceived without the active participation of the masses and that this required “long and patient work”. A reading of Engels today, with the slide of contemporary capitalism before our eyes, fuels a wish to strike out again by following that path.