Authors: Friedrich Engels

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

German philosopher and social scientist

November 28, 1820

Barmen, Prussia (now in Germany)

August 5, 1895

London, England


Friedrich Engels (EHNG-guhlz) was instrumental in the founding and development of the communist movement. Brought up in a liberal upper-class milieu in Germany’s Prussian region, he dropped out of secondary school in accordance with his father’s plans to have him help run the family textile firm. From 1838 to 1841 Engels acquired practical business experience in the offices of an export company, while at the same time becoming involved with the nascent revolutionary organizations that sought to overturn Germany’s established governmental and social institutions. After a year of voluntary army service in Berlin, which initiated a lifelong interest in military matters and also led to closer ties with that city’s radical activists, Engels made the acquaintance of the communist theoretician Moses Hess in 1842. It was Hess who provided the intellectual foundation that marked the final stage in Engels’s conversion to communism, while also convincing him that Great Britain was the country most likely to experience a successful working-class revolution.

Friedrich Engels.

By William Hall, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus Engels was delighted to accept his father’s suggestion that he familiarize himself with the operations of the English branch of the family firm, which were based in the industrial city of Manchester. Engels resided in Manchester from 1842 to 1844, where he once again led a double life as respectable businessman by day and revolutionary activist by night. There he met Mary Burns, an Irish factory worker with whom he lived, without benefit of clergy, until she passed away in 1863; Engels would later live with her sister Lizzy on similar terms. His relationships reflected his opposition to the institution of marriage. In 1844 he returned to Germany by way of Paris, where he renewed an acquaintanceship with Karl Marx and cemented the friendship that would eventually produce several classic works of communist literature.

Although Engels wrote several journalistic articles on political and historical topics between 1838 and 1845, it was only in the latter year that his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, appeared. This graphic portrait of how the Industrial Revolution had affected those who labored in its mills and factories was very influential in its day and is still considered one of the classic works of Victorian social criticism. In the same year, Engels and Marx collaborated on The German Ideology, a much more theoretical treatment of the history of German socialist thought that has come to be viewed as an important step in the development of their thinking.

From 1845 to 1848, Engels and Marx were intimately involved in the struggle to convert the working class to the principles of the communist movement. London, Paris, and Brussels were the primary sites of their activity, which concentrated on practical organizational tasks but also produced the document commonly known as The Communist Manifesto in 1848. This masterpiece of incisive political rhetoric was enormously influential in generating support for revolutionary ideals and is an essential document for anyone wishing to comprehend the appeal of the communist movement.

When a series of insurrections exploded across Europe in 1848, Germany became one of the major scenes of struggle between the forces of revolution and reaction. Engels was actively involved in the operation of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the Cologne newspaper that Marx edited, which combined reportage of contemporary events with more reflective analyses of broader trends. When the revolutionary movement was finally suppressed, Engels moved to London, where the pressing need for funds led him once again to take up the business career that had been suspended in 1844. Engels eventually became a partner in the Manchester firm that at first employed him in a junior position, and when he sold his share in the company in 1869, he was able to live comfortably on the proceeds of this transaction. As his biographers have noted, Engels seems to have had little difficulty in reconciling his business activities with his political work. He functioned efficiently but separately in both worlds, and never permitted his anti-capitalist ideals to restrict the efficient management of his company.

Until Marx passed away in 1883, Engels remained his close friend and frequent collaborator. During the years when Engels lived in Manchester and Marx in London, the record of their correspondence reveals just how closely they worked together on journalistic and book-length projects. Engels often wrote newspaper articles that appeared under Marx’s name, and the first volume of Marx’s masterwork, Das Kapital (1867; Capital, 1886), was heavily indebted to Engels’s research; volumes two and three were compiled by Engels from Marx’s notes (1885-1894). Over the years the two worked out an effective division of labor, in which Marx concentrated on the theoretical and philosophical elaboration of communist thought, while Engels carried out research into the practical aspects of economics and current political events.

Engels became increasingly prominent in international revolutionary circles after Marx’s death in 1883. Whereas Marx had tended to exacerbate the ideological differences between the kind of militant communist program he advocated and the more gradualist position of contemporary socialists, Engels took a much more conciliatory approach that emphasized the common ground uniting revolutionaries and reformists. Through extensive correspondence with political activists the world over, he helped to maintain a degree of mutual cooperation between communists and socialists that would last until the irreparable fractures caused by World War I and the Russian Revolution.

In the years between Marx’s demise in 1883 and his own death from cancer in 1895, Engels was so involved with practical political matters and the need to finish Marx’s Capital that he had little time to work on projects of personal interest. The work that he did publish during this period had either been largely completed before 1883 or was of minor journalistic significance. As a result, historians of the communist movement have tended to view him as very much the junior partner in the Marx-Engels relationship, a kind of functionally useful but intrinsically uninteresting appendage to the achievements of what has been defined as “Marxism” rather than “Marx-Engels-ism.” This picture has been significantly altered, however, by those researchers who have closely studied his life and work, and by the time of the centenary of his death in 1995 the scholarly consensus had shifted in favor of viewing Engels as an important and independent contributor to communist theory and practice. Although the collaboration with Marx may be the single most important aspect of his career, Engels’s shrewd observations of economic and political realities, and the adeptness with which he achieved success in both the capitalist and communist worlds, ensure that he will remain a fascinating figure to students of his era.

Author Works Nonfiction: Die heilige Familie, 1844 (with Karl Marx; The Holy Family, 1956) Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England, 1845 (The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, 1887) Die deutsche Ideologie, 1845 (with Marx; The German Ideology, 1938) Grundsätze des Kommunismus, 1847 (Principles of Communism, 1925) Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, 1848 (with Marx; The Communist Manifesto, 1850) Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, 1850 (serial), 1870 (book; The Peasant War in Germany, 1926) Herr Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, 1877–1878 (Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, 1894) Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft, 1882 (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1892) Dialektik der Natur, wr. 1883, pb. 1925 (Dialectics of Nature, 1939) Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats, 1884 (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1902) Zur Wohnunsfrage, 1887 (The Housing Question, 1935) Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie, 1888 (Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, 1934) Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany in 1848, 1896 (Eleanor Marx Aveling, editor) Bibliography Carver, Terrell. Friedrich Engels: His Life and Thought. London: Macmillan, 1989. An intellectual biography that emphasizes the importance of Engels’s early writings and their subsequent influence on his political and social ideas. Carver, Terrell. Marx and Engels: The Intellectual Relationship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. Any serious student of Engels must pay attention to his long and complicated friendship with Karl Marx, and Carver’s account of their relationship is an extensive and convincing one. Coates, Zelda K. The Life and Work of Friedrich Engels. London: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920. A dated but still valuable overview of Engels’s career. The ideas that invigorated his active and influential life are the primary focus of attention. Hammen, Oscar J. The Red ’48ers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. New York: Scribner, 1969. Hammen focuses on the interlinked activities of Engels and Karl Marx up to 1850, with the balance of his study devoted to the tumultuous events of 1848-1849. Henderson, W. O. The Life of Friedrich Engels. 2 vols. London: Cassells, 1976. An impressively thorough work that is particularly good on Engels’s relationships with his contemporaries. Hunley, J. D. The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. This scholarly but readable study focuses on its subject’s relationship with Karl Marx and argues that Engels did not appreciably alter Marx’s ideas in the process of disseminating them. McClellan, David. Friedrich Engels. New York: Viking Press, 1978. A brief but authoritative introduction to Engels’s life and work by one of the foremost scholars in the field. Marcus, Steven. Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class. New York: Random House, 1974. Marcus analyzes Engels from the standpoint of his relationship to Victorian England and, in the process, provides a wealth of useful background information in a book aimed at the intelligent general reader. Riazanov, D. B. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work. Translated by Joshua Kunitz. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973. An interpretation from the point of view of orthodox communist theory that helps to explain how the ideas of two nineteenth century German intellectuals became the basis of the Soviet Union’s foundation.

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