Friedrich Engels – II

Image: Claudio Mubarac / Jornal de Resenhas


Engels' contributions to the theory of historical materialism and to the political strategy of the socialist revolution

In this commemoration of the 200th birthday of Friedrich Engels we must remember the profound influence he exercised on his comrade, Karl Marx, as well as his own journalistic and theoretical contributions to formulating the strategy of socialist revolution by the streets and ballot boxes at the same time.

Friedrich Engels understood, even before Karl Marx, the centrality of the critique of political economy. In fact, when the two radicals got to know each other, Engels had published many more articles on this subject than his friend.

Born 200 years ago, on November 28, 1820, in Barmen, Germany (now a suburb of Wuppertal), Friedrich Engels was a promising young man. His father, a textile industrialist, denied him the opportunity to study at university. Instead, he guided his son into the midst of his company. Engels, an atheist, was self-taught and had a voracious appetite for knowledge. He signed his articles with a pseudonym to avoid conflict with his conservative and strongly religious family.

The two years he spent in England – where he was sent at the age of 22 to work in Manchester at the cotton plant’s offices Ermen & Engels –, were decisive for the maturation of his political convictions. It was there that he personally observed the effects of capitalist exploitation on the proletariat, private property and competition between individuals. He made contact with the Chartist movement and fell in love with the Irish worker, Mary Burns, who played a key role in its development.

Engels was a brilliant journalist. He published accounts in Germany of English social struggles, as well as writing for the English-speaking press about ongoing social advances on the continent. The article “Outlines of a critique of political economy”, published in the Franco-German Annals in 1844 it aroused great interest in Marx, who at the time had decided to devote all his energies to the same subject. The two began a theoretical and political collaboration that would last the rest of their lives.

Engels' influence

In 1845 Engels published his first book in German The situation of the working class in England (Boitempo). As the subtitle emphasized, this work was based "on direct observation and genuine sources." Engels wrote in the preface that real knowledge of the working and living conditions of the proletariat was "absolutely necessary, as it will be able to provide a solid basis for socialist theories". In his introductory dedication, "To the working class of England", Engels further pointed out that his work "in the field" gave him, in a direct and non-abstract way, "knowledge of the real life of the workers". He was never discriminated against or "treated by them (workers) as a foreigner" and was happy to see that they were freed from "the terrible curse of national narrowness and arrogance".

In the same year that the French government expelled Marx for his communist activities, Engels followed him to Brussels. There, they published their first book together, The Holy Family (Boitempo), in addition to producing a voluminous unpublished manuscript during his lifetime – The German Ideology – which was left to the “corrosive rat critic”. In the same period, Engels went to England with his friend and showed Marx firsthand what he had previously seen and understood about the capitalist mode of production. It was then that Marx gave up the critique of post-Hegelian philosophy and began the long journey that led, twenty years later, to the first volume of The capital. The two friends also wrote in 1848 the Communist Party Manifesto and participated in the revolutionary activities in the same year.

In 1849, after the defeat of the revolution, Marx was forced to move to England, and Engels soon crossed the Channel behind him. Marx lodged in London, while Engels went to take care of the family business in Manchester, about two hundred miles away. He had become, as he put it, "second fiddle" to Marx, and to support and help his friend (who was often without income) he agreed to manage his father's factory in Manchester until 1870.

The correspondences of Marx and Engels

During these two decades, the two men lived the most intense period of their lives, exchanging texts on the main political and economic events of the time. Most of the 2.500 letters exchanged between them date from 1849 to 1870, a period in which they also sent about 1.500 letters to activists and intellectuals in nearly 20 countries. To this imposing total should be added a good 10.000 letters from third parties to Engels and Marx, and another 6.000 which, though no longer traceable, are known to have existed. This correspondence is a treasure trove, containing ideas that, in some cases, neither Marx nor Engels managed to fully develop in their writings.

Few nineteenth-century correspondences can boast references as erudite as those that flowed from the pens of the two communist revolutionaries. Marx read nine languages ​​and Engels mastered as many as twelve. His letters are impressive for their constant switching of languages ​​and the number of learned citations, including Latin and Greek. The two humanists were also great lovers of literature. Marx knew passages from Shakespeare by heart and never tired of leafing through his volumes of Aeschylus, Dante and Balzac. Engels was long-time president of the Schiller Institute in Manchester and he loved Aristotle, Goethe and Lessing. Along with constant discussion of international developments and revolutionary possibilities, many of their exchanges concern major contemporary advances in technology, geology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and anthropology. Marx always considered Engels an indispensable interlocutor, consulting his critical spirit whenever he needed to position himself on a controversial subject.

In addition to great intellectual companions, the sentimental relationship between the two men was even more extraordinary. Marx confided to Engels all his personal difficulties, starting with the terrible material deprivations and the numerous health problems that plagued him for decades. Engels showed total selflessness in helping Marx and his family, always doing everything in his power to guarantee them a dignified existence and to facilitate the realization of The capital. Marx was always grateful for this financial help, as we can see from what he wrote one night in August 1867, a few minutes after he had finished correcting the proofs in Volume I: "I owe you nothing but that this was possible."

Engels' theoretical contributions

During those 20 years, however, Engels never stopped writing. In 1850 he published The Peasant Wars in Germany (Popular Expression), a history of the revolts in 1524-25. There, Engels sought to show how the behavior of the bourgeoisie at the time was similar to that of the petty bourgeoisie during the 1848-49 revolution, and how responsible it had been for the defeats suffered.

To allow Marx to devote more time to completing his economic studies, between 1851 and 1862 Engels also wrote almost half of the five hundred articles that Marx contributed to the New york tribune (the newspaper with the largest circulation in the USA). He informed the American public about the course and possible outcomes of the many wars that took place in Europe. On more than one occasion he managed to foresee developments and anticipate the military strategies used on the various fronts, earning himself the nickname with which he was known among 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 60 articles for the English daily Pall Mall Gazette analyzing military events prior to the Paris Commune. These were well received and testified to his acumen in military matters.

Over the next fifteen years, Engels made his main theoretical contributions in a series of writings directed against political opponents of the labor movement. Between 1872 and 1873 he wrote a series of three articles for the Volksstaat which were also released, as a pamphlet, with the title On the housing issue (Boitempo). Engels' intention was to oppose the spread of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's ideas in Germany and to make it clear to workers that reformist policies could not replace a proletarian revolution. O Anti-Duhring (Boitempo), published in 1878, which he described as “a more or less connected exposition of the dialectical method and the communist worldview”, became a crucial point of reference for the formation of Marxist doctrine.

Although Engels's efforts to popularize Marx - polemicizing with other simplistic readings - must be distinguished from the vulgarizations of the later generation of German social democracy, his recourse to the natural sciences opened the way for an evolutionary conception of social phenomena that diminished the nuances of the analyzes of marx. From utopian socialism to scientific socialism, a three-chapter restatement of the Anti-Duhring, had an even greater impact than the original text. But despite its merits, and the fact that it circulated almost as widely as the Communist Party Manifesto, Engels' definitions of "science" and "scientific socialism" would later be used by the Marxist-Leninist vulgate to prevent any critical discussion of the theses of the "founders of communism".

Dialectic of Nature (Boitempo), fragments of a project on which Engels worked sporadically between 1873 and 1883, has been the subject of great controversy. For some he was the cornerstone of Marxism, while for others he was the main culprit in the birth of Soviet dogmatism. Today it must be read as an incomplete work, revealing Engels' limitations but also the potential contained in his ecological critique. While the use of dialectics there certainly reduced the theoretical and methodological complexity of Marx's thought, it would be incorrect to blame him – as many have done – for everything they find unpleasant in Marx's writings, or to blame Engels only for theoretical errors or even defeats. policies.

In 1884, Engels published Origins of the family, private property and the state (Boitempo), an analysis of the anthropological studies carried out by the American Lewis Morgan. Morgan had discovered that matriarchal relationships historically preceded patriarchal relationships. For Engels, this was as important a revelation about 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 develop in society and the state. The first class of 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 anti-colonial struggles, Engels never hesitated to champion the cause of emancipation. Finally, in 1886, he published a polemical work aimed at the resurgence of idealism in German academic circles, Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy.

Reading Engels in 2020

Engels outlived Marx by twelve years. During this time he devoted himself to his friend's literary heritage and to the leadership of the international workers' movement. His enormous contribution to the growth of workers' parties in Germany, France and Great Britain is evident in a series of journalistic articles he wrote for the main socialist newspapers of the time, including Die Neue Zeit, Le Socialiste e Social Criticism, in greetings to party congresses, as well as the hundreds of letters he wrote in this period. Engels wrote extensively about the birth and ongoing debates surrounding the Second International, whose founding congress took place on 14 July 1889. Even more importantly, he devoted his energies to the spread of Marxism.

Engels was entrusted with the extremely difficult task of preparing for publication the drafts of Volumes II and III of The capital which Marx failed to complete. He also oversaw new editions of previously published works, a number of translations, and wrote prefaces and afterwords to several republications of Marx's works. In a new introduction to Marx's book Class struggles in France - 1848/1850 (Boitempo), composed a few months before his death, Engels elaborated a theory of revolution that tried to adapt to the new political scenario in Europe. The proletariat had become the social majority, he argued, and the prospect of seizing power by electoral means – with universal suffrage – made it possible to defend revolution and legality at the same time.

Unlike the German Social Democrats, who manipulated his text in a legalistic and reformist sense, Engels insisted that “struggle in the streets” still had its place in revolution. Revolution, continued Engels, could not be conceived without the active participation of the masses, and this required "long and patient work". Reading Engels today, 200 years after his birth, fills us with a desire to walk the path he paved.

Marcello Musto is a professor at the University of York (Toronto). Author, among other books, of the old marx (Boitempo).

Translation: Isabella Gesser for the magazine Jacobin Brazil.


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