“Most people are too lazy to read stout tomes such as Das Kapital and hence a slim little pamphlet [Socialism: Utopian and Scientific] like this has a much more rapid effect.” – Friedrich Engels, MECW, vol. 46, pp. 300, 369.
Friedrich Engels; the whipping boy of the contemporary Left, the genesis of the “original sin” of Stalinism, the positivist vulgarizer of Marx’s work, and the mistaken ideologue who foolishly tried to apply Marx’s method to the natural sciences. These are all common tropes that have been used to disparage Engels not only as a theoretician within the pantheon of communist thought, but also to undercut his own role in contributing to the foundations of Marxism, and therefore relegating his role in his relationship with Marx to that of passive follower who “never quite got it (Marxism) but thought he did”. The reasons for expunging Engels express various political motives, with some seeing Engels as the sole person responsible for stripping Marx’s thought of its original humanism as seen in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology, and thus inadvertently paving the way for the “Stalinist horrors” of the 20th century. Still others of a more liberal bent see in Engels an expression of 19th century thought, with all of its determinist fervor, as the contrast, rather than compliment, to Marx’s perceived liberal thought. In both narratives Engels is the corrupter, the defiler of the “purity” of Marx’s original contributions, that, despite Engels’s perceived good intentions to spread Marxism, unknowingly spread his own distortion of Marxism infected with a whole host of alien ideological baggage.
However, the truth of Engels’s role is that not only was he integral to the spread of Marxism after Marx’s death, but that it was Engels, not Marx, that can be said to have been the first Marxist. Far from being the “corrupter” of Marxism, Engels was its staunchest defender, and worked tirelessly, both openly and discreetly, to construct the theoretical and practical foundations of Marxism for over 40 years. Without Engels, Marxism as we know it, and as History birthed it, would not exist.
The young Engels was a radical. He was the product of a bourgeois and religiously pious household, a situation that he rebelled against constantly in his youth, but a moral background that undergirded his indignation at the horrors and injustices of emerging industrial society. The early Engels wrote zealously against the mistreatment of the poor in industrial society, with his moral compass directed by his still present Protestant faith and commitment to the downtrodden as the true children of God. His early journalistic career was filled with scathing critiques of the the conditions that created the perils of the proletariat, overflowing with fire and brimstone rhetoric that any preacher would be jealous of.
He joined the Prussian military in 1841, where he would learn his penchant for discipline and co-ordination, qualities he possessed that were noticed by fellow soldiers and superior officers. It was at this time that he became involved with the Young Hegelians in Berlin, a firebrand group of young intellectuals enamored with the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel that consistently gathered at local taverns to rowdily converse over the latest philosophical questions of the day. The pints flowed, as did the vigorous shouting, and occasionally a punch or two if tempers flared. Such prominent intellectuals such as Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Max Stirner were counted among the ranks of the Young Hegelians. This was the atmosphere where the young Engels, already known for his sharp wit, honed his debating skills and sharpened his politics.
It wasn’t long until Engels grew frustrated with the lack of political activity of the Young Hegelians, prefiguring Marxism’s later emphasis on the fusion between theory and practice. Engels’s time with the Young Hegelians was cut rather short due to his impatience. However, politically, he underwent a transformation as his close friendship with the fellow Young Hegelian, Moses Hess, had made him a convinced communist by 1842. It was around this time that Engels first met Marx. As a Young Hegelian Engels had been writing editorials consistently for the newspaper the Rheinische Zeitung, a paper which Marx wrote for as well. It was in the offices of that newspaper where Marx and Engels first met. Engels was visiting the office with his friend Edgar Bauer, the younger brother of Bruno Bauer, when they both stumbled upon the scene of Marx shouting wildly about the paper publishing Edgar Bauer’s articles, which, according to Marx, pushed “militant communism” and were all “hot air”. Engels, being the friend of Edgar, immediately drew the cold stare of Marx, who, needless to say, was less than impressed with the two young communists. However brief this meeting was, one thing is clear, at the time of their first meeting Engels was already a convinced communist while Marx was still a bourgeois democrat.
In that same year Engels’s parents had sent him to Manchester to work in the family owned cotton mill. However, it was here, in the Engels family cotton mill, where the foundations of Marxism were born. Engels spent most of his time compiling data, observing factory life, and walking through the proletarian districts of Manchester to gather material for a series of articles to be published in the Rheinische Zeitung. Later these would be compiled into his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England. It was his time in Manchester that confirmed to him the necessity of communism. Unlike Marx, who arrived at communism through philosophical inquiry and humanism, Engels came to communism through the practical realities he directly observed operating within capitalism. In Manchester he finally connected his Hegelian philosophical radicalism to the realities of capitalism and the struggles of the working class. When he met up with Marx in Paris in 1844 it was Engels’s fervent belief in the vanguard role of the proletariat, confirmed through experience and research, which Marx adopted. Without hesitation we can say that it was then that Engels became the first Marxist, with Marx following his lead.
It was after this second meeting that Marx and Engels would establish their lasting working relationship, and where Engels would cement his role as the great popularizer of their ideas. In 1845 Engels toured Germany giving lectures on communism, which drew sizable crowds, in which he staunchly debated ideological opponents and convinced more than a few with his speaking skills, well-crafted arguments, and unrelenting determination. Engels was also responsible for drafting the Principles of Communism, a document meant for popular consumption that elucidated the fundamentals of Marx and Engels’s communism in a few short pages. It was this document that served as a rough blueprint for what would become the most Earth shaking political pamphlet in modern times, The Communist Manifesto.
Engels didn’t stop at merely lecturing and writing and co-authoring revolutionary tracts, he also used his skills as an orator and political shrewdness, to go amongst the working class to fight to win over workers to communism. One such instance was Engels traveling to Paris with nothing but his own small sum of money and his own wit in an attempt to convert the Straubingers (German immigrant workers that subscribed to “true socialism” and some to the theories of the French anarchist Proudhon). He attended all of their weekly meetings, spoke, debated, denounced, and bullied until the majority came to his side. He transformed his politics from a minority of one, to a majority that encompassed all but two or three, by himself. His struggle in converting these “uneducated” workers honed his skills as a popularizer, a skill that he would perfect in his later years when he propelled Marxism to new heights of popularity.
While Engels financially supported Marx in his monumental endeavor of political economy, Das Kapital, he still worked behind the scenes politically, jockeying for political dominance in the First International, publishing shorter works of his own like the now classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and editing and adding suggestions to Marx’s works. Engels was the corresponding secretary for the First International for Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Denmark. He was able to coordinate a multi-country proletarian struggle from his study in Manchester. Every paper and document concerning the workers’ movement was personally delivered to his home, and he poured over each one meticulously. He kept track of factional squabbles and practical events alike across the entire Continental workers’ movement. He also did translations and correspondence with labor representatives in multiple languages, and was in charge of editing and approving all final drafts and translations of Marxist work before publication.
However, not until after Marx’s death in 1883 does Marxism as a movement emerge, primarily due to the popularization of Marxism and Marx’s works by Engels. Indeed, leading figures of the Second International credit Engels, not Marx, with their conversion to Marxism, specifically citing Engels’s pamphlets Anti-Duhring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific as the catalyst for the explosion of Marxism on the Continent. August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, Georgi Plekhanov, and Karl Kautsky (the so-called Pope of Marxism himself) all confessed to being made Marxists by the pamphlet Anti-Duhring. It was with those two pamphlets that countries such as England, Austria, France, Germany, and Italy finally had compact synopses of Marxism for the first time in an easily digestible form meant for popular consumption by the proletarian masses and their revolutionary intellectuals. It was also during this time that Engels began to look to the natural sciences as further proof for the validity of dialectical materialism and historical materialism. The result of his research was several incomplete articles and notes on subjects ranging from mathematics, chemistry, biology, and human evolution, which was later collected into the book Dialectics of Nature. Although much of the book is now discredited with recent discoveries, and according to Albert Einstein the sections on mathematics were utterly confused, the short essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man has been hailed by prominent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould as the only 19th century text to anticipate the co-development of the human brain and hand in the evolutionary process. This work also condensed dialectics into the three main laws of the transformation of quantity into quality, the negation of the negation, and the unity and conflict of opposites, all furnished with their appropriate examples from the natural world.
Far from being the vulgar butcher of Marx’s ideas and Marxism itself, Engels was instrumental, indeed, indispensable to Marxism’s creation. Even more important was Engels’s role as a popularizer of Marxist ideas, leading to the world-historic fusion of the working class movement with Marxism. Their can be no Marxism without Engels, neither historically speaking, nor politically. Engels was the battering ram for Marxism, the far-sighted tactician, the disciplined and militant soldier of communism and of the proletariat marching with revolutionary zeal across the continent. From the slums and workers’ dwellings of Manchester to the workers’ meetings in Paris, Engels was the tireless propagator of a politics that he arrived at even before Marx. Engels was a communist in words and deeds, as well as an incredible organizer that proved that he was much more than the inferior to Marx, or that he was somehow not even a Marxist at all. Engels was the first Marxist, the one who laid the bedrock on which the tower of Marxism could be built. Without the fiery young communist soldier from a pious bourgeois family, the entire structure of Marxism might have been but a historical footnote in the broader history of proletarian politics instead of its treasure and guide to change the world.