Friedrich Engels - a biography

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Presentation of the classic book by Gustav Mayer, recently published in Brazil

The passage of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels, celebrated in November 2020, was the subject of academic, cultural and political events that, even in the midst of the pandemic that today makes the lives of hundreds of millions of people miserable – mortally affecting especially working populations – carried out in centers throughout the civilized world. It is not unfounded to believe that, among the tributes to be paid this year to Karl Marx's greatest friend and comrade, will be the enrichment of the bibliography concerning him.

In Brazil, this edition of the pioneering and renowned biography of Engels by Gustav Mayer (hereafter GM) reproduces the text of what, in his 1935 preface, the author declared to be “this new biography, which I wrote for the English-speaking world”. The text, later known as the “condensed edition” – constitutes an excellent contribution to that enrichment within the existing documentation in our language, in which, unless I am mistaken, GM remained unpublished until the launch of this book.

Launch, therefore, with which Boitempo Editorial participates in events related to the passage of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels and, at the same time, enables direct access for the Luso-Brazilian public (and other countries in our language community) to the remarkable work of GM – an intellectual who advanced from the field of journalism to the field of social history, inscribing himself theoretically and politically within the framework of social democratic thought.


It is necessary, right at the opening of this very brief presentation, to make two observations related to what we stated in the preceding paragraph. The first concerns the pioneering character of GM's work, the result of the enormous research he carried out between approximately 1913 and the beginning of the 1930s – this character is emphasized by all specialists in F. Engels. In fact, until the end of the second decade of the XNUMXth century, when GM concluded the first volume of his biography of Engels, no systematic study was known about the life and work of the author of the Engels. Anti-Duhring: only testimonials and informative syntheses circulated by the press linked to the socialist movement, as well as scattered evocations contained in the memoirs of figures who dealt with Engels (by the way, the scenario in which F. Mehring worked to publish his also large and pioneering biography of Karl Marx). And this state of affairs hardly changed until GM ended its second volume.

The following observation is pertinent to the qualification of Mayer's biography of Engels as a consecrated work: from the moment it was made public, GM's work was the object of a warm reception among academics and scholars located in the most diverse spaces of the theoretical and political spectrum - reception that has stood the test of time. Let us briefly dwell on this aspect, which certainly deserves less epidermal attention than the one dedicated to it here.

In 1935, Hans Speier, in what was perhaps the first review by an academic figure, predicted that GM's book would contribute to a better understanding of Germany, as well as the origins of socialism. Let me add that the book is also a literary monument to the unique friendship between Engels and Marx.

Some fifteen years later, Maximilien Rubel, soon to become a respected Marxologist, wrote, referring expressly to the biography of Engels prepared by GM:

At the same time that Marx had found his first great biographer in Mehring, Engels would find him in the person of Gustav Mayer, a remarkable researcher and historian, who knew how to use judiciously the riches of the Marx-Engels archives preserved by the German Social Democratic Party.

In the second half of the 1970s, the prestigious English academic G. Stedman Jones did not hesitate to formulate a frankly complimentary opinion of GM's book: “Engels was the subject of one of the best erudite biographies of the XNUMXth century, that of Gustav Mayer, the product of a research that lasted more than thirty years and a knowledge of German workers and socialist history of the XNUMXth century that is unparalleled”.

At about the same time that Jones was expressing himself in this way, what many consider one of the greatest Marxist historians of the 1934th century, Eric J. Hobsbawm, lamented that, because of Hitler's rise to power, “the monumental biography of Engels written by Gustav Mayer, a work characterized by extraordinary erudition, had to be published in 19 by a Dutch exile press, remaining virtually unknown to the younger Marxists of post-war West Germany until the [70]XNUMXs”.

It can be seen from the voice of this tiny – but chosen for its almost unanimously admitted high qualification – intellectual sample, that GM's work on Engels has been the object, over the decades, of a very generous and favorable reception. Incidentally, with regard strictly and specifically to the Marxist milieus, in which the reference to it is reiterated, only one really important author has appreciated it with noteworthy reservations – David Riazanov – and he has done so for reasons that, in our opinion, are not fully sustainable. We need to stop quickly on this point.

David Riazanov (1870-1938) does not stand out within the Marxist tradition only for having been a profound and competent scholar of Marx and Engels, but also for his importance as responsible for the first major editorial project to bring together the works of both, known for MEGA, acronym for Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe [The Complete Works of Marx and Engels]. Riazanov certainly only knew the first volume (1920) of the biography prepared by GM and probably did not have access to the author's titles released later; remember that, in January 1931, his political martyrdom began: exonerated from the direction of the Marx-Engels Institute/IME, which he had founded ten years earlier, he was arrested and soon banished to Saratov; in 1937 he was arrested again, and the following year he was executed by assassins in Stalin's service.

Riazanov's judgment on GM's biography of Engels is expressed in a 1921 conference. Here it is, very briefly: with regard to the life of the young man biographed, Riazanov points out that “it should be recognized that Gustav Mayer has merits in discovering important facts of life from Engels to 1842”. Taking care of Engels' intellectual work at the time of his youth, he stresses the examination of parts ofthe german ideology, hitherto unpublished; evaluates this examination as the high point of the book, stating that GM approached elements of the Marx-Engelsian text with originality – but criticizes the lack of precise documentary indications of the passages analyzed by GM, which signals, in his view, scientific deficiencies that, arising from of journalistic practice, compromise the work of the historian.

And he points out what seems to him to be the underlying reason for the limitations he notes: GM “is a bourgeois writer. Only recently has he become a social democrat or, more exactly, a national and German social democrat. Due to his background, he is unable to understand that Marxism is a philosophical and revolutionary doctrine. At best, he sees Engels as a good German patriot.”

Some of the reservations that Riazanov makes with regard to the biography of Engels published in 1920 may even be considered valid, but they do not extend to the work as a whole, completed in the second volume. And what we called the “fundamental reason” above is not sustainable – also and also because GM's social democratic position was anything but recent: it came from the middle of the first decade of the century. It seems to us that the political bias of the communist Riazanov's judgment certainly immediately reflected the conjuncture posed by the bloody repression that segments of the social-democratic right (F. Ebert and G. Noske) commanded against the Spartacist leadership, culminating in the murder of Rosa Luxemburgo and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 – an event that opened a then unbridgeable divide between the social democrats and the communists.

Considering studies on the nature of biographical work and more than a century of biographical approximations to Marx and Engels, we understand that the fact of not being a Marxist (which is itself a controversial classification) does not, in principle, prevent a scholar linked to a a theoretical-methodological and ideological-political perspective different from that of Marx is able to offer a comprehensive and valid approach to his life and work (and those of Engels).

It is real the possibility of a non-Marxist biographer, overcoming with scientific impartiality and analytical richness limitations of his theoretical-methodological perspective, to faithfully apprehend the particular meaning of the life and essentiality of the work of his biographee - provided he is the bearer of substantive cultural baggage, operate with intellectual honesty and demonstrate dedication to work, investigative rigor and passion for its object. GM gathered these requirements and attributes and demonstrated, in his biography of Engels, how this possibility is concretely realized. That said, let's say something about the GM himself.


Gustav Mayer was born, the first son of a Jewish family dedicated to commercial activities, on October 4, 1871, in Prenzlau, a small town in northern Germany. After completing his university studies, in 1896 he took a job at the Frankfurter Zeitung [frankfurt newspaper], a credible periodical that circulated from 1856 to 1943, reporting on economic and financial issues. As a correspondent for the newspaper abroad, GM worked in France, Holland and Belgium – when he established relationships with prominent political leaders of the socialist reformist movement. His marriage, in 1905, to the daughter of a well-to-do family, provided him with the conditions to, without completely abandoning journalism, dedicate more and more time to investigating the history of the German labor movement – ​​he then began his research ( first in Heidelberg, then in Berlin) that would make him, over the years, one of the most reputed connoisseurs of this history.

The first expressive result of these researches was published in 1909: Johann Baptist von Schweitzer and social democracy: a contribution to the history of the German labor movement. Schweitzer (1833-1875) directed for three years, between 1864 and 1867, the official organ – Der Socialdemokrat [The Social Democrat] – of the General Association of German Workers, founded in 1863 by Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864); after the premature death of Lassalle, he assumed an important role in the organization that would profoundly mark the evolution of the German proletariat, in a complex relationship with the Marxist current that emerged later.

In this political-biographical essay of 1909, the central object and guideline of the work of GM's historian, which would develop from then on, already appear: the constitution of the German socialist movement, with special attention and sympathy in the face of the social democratic trend. lassalian. And, in the years prior to the First World War, GM advances in his research and thematizes, with astuteness and erudition, in a 1912 essay, The beginnings of pre-March Prussian political radicalism.

In 1914, recruited by the military authorities, GM was sent to Belgium, where he provided administrative services during the occupation. Naturally, the war interrupts his investigations, but he finds conditions to publish a significant text – German Marxism and the War. With the end of war operations and amid the repression of the revolutionary attempts that shook the country, GM resumes his research and soon seeks to enter university life: he submits a dissertation to the University of Berlin to qualify for a post at the institution; even with the support of prominent personalities, its entry was prevented by a group of reactionary professors, with Dietrich Schäfer (1845-1929) at the head.

Opposition to his name was clearly political in nature: GM's social democratic theoretical and ideological convictions aroused strong suspicions in traditionalist segments – despite the fact that he, identifying with his moderate and non-Marxist sectors, never formally affiliated with the Social Democratic Party. Only at the end of 1919 was he admitted to the University and only in 1922 did he become associate professor in the chair of the History of Democracy and Socialism; later, he was named a member of the Historical Commission of the Archives of the Empire, in which he opposed the dominance of the military in official historiography.

At the beginning of the 1920s, his reputation as a highly qualified researcher was already widely recognized, consolidated with the publication of the first volume of Engels' biography. Not by chance, the creators of the Institut für Sozialforschung [Institute for Social Research], founded in Frankfurt in 1922-1923, the base of the later famous “Frankfurt School”, when they had to look for the replacement of their recently deceased first director, Kurt Gerlach (1866-1922), soon contacted GM, which was his preferred name. But GM did not accept the proposal made to him by Félix Weil – and Gerlach's successor turned out to be the Marxist Carl Grünberg (1861-1940).

The 1920s were precisely the most productive and fruitful of GM's intellectual life – at that time, he was able to dedicate himself intensively to his historical research. Preparing to write the second volume of Engels' biography, GM examined a wealth of documentation, accessed sources that until then slumbered in the archives of the Social Democratic Party in Berlin and, in 1928, in Moscow, when he was at the Marx-Engels Institute/IME (created by Riazanov, as we saw pages back), gathering first-hand information through his dialogue with prominent figures of socialist theory and movement – ​​Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and Conrad Schmidt (1863-1932). In those 1920s, however, GM did not exclusively investigate material relating to Engels – he also continued research centered on the constituent process of the social democratic tendency linked to Lassalle's activities; this is how he was able to organize the six volumes of Lassalle's correspondence and writings, plus one volume gathering the correspondence and conversations between Lassalle and Bismarck.

Hitler's arrival in power forced GM, like thousands of other Germans – especially intellectuals, artists, scientists and democratic militants of the most diverse political background, liberals, socialists and communists – into exile. It is true that GM left Germany in 1933, in very difficult financial conditions and a Nazi “legal” device soon prevented Jews from emigrating without paying very high taxes, in addition to losing acquired rights to pensions and bank funds abroad. No details are known about GM and his family, his wife and two children, visiting Holland; but it is known that, in 1936, they were established in London.

The exile in England marked, for GM, the bitter final stage of his life. Having a poor command of spoken English, he was unable to establish himself as a professor at the university – but he joined the team of researchers at the IISH based in London and, without receiving remuneration, in activities in the London School of Economics. And it is certain that, during the course of exile, the financial conditions of the Mayer family ensured its members only a very modest existence.

The various testimonies about GM's exile suggest that he remained a outsider in England. And not only because of difficulties of an economic nature - these weighed heavily, but those motivated by the loss of minimum working conditions, by reports of barbarities operated by Nazism, the suffering imposed on German workers, the removal of friends who had prevented the continuity of the work were decisive. his work and the shattering of their lives and, finally, because of the drama that directly affected him – the suicide of his eldest son, in 1941. It is a fact that GM made an effort to pursue his historical studies, with lean essays and substantive reflections and notes. However, in addition to his soul pains, the advancement in his seventies was already taking its toll on him.

The last account was redeemed on February 21, 1948, the date of his death in England.


I believe that a synopsis, even if schematic and poor, of the content of the 1934 edition would be of value to the reader of GM's work, so that he can refer to what he will find in the condensed version of 1936.

The 1934 edition, in the thirteen chapters that make up its first volume, deals with the life and writings of Engels from his birth (November 28, 1820) to his arrival, as an exile, in London (November 1849 ) – thus covers the initial 29 years of the subject. Of these thirteen chapters, the first seven highlight GM's erudition in dealing with the political and cultural history of the German Confederation and the originality of his research, bringing to light elements, ignored at the time, of Engels' precocious intellectual activity (especially the his literary and journalistic beginnings) and the relevance of his correspondence, until then also little explored, with friends (the Graeber brothers), relatives (especially his dear sister, Marie) and intellectuals. GM's perspicacity in tracing the clues that allow clarifying the religious dilemmas, literary options and philosophical choices of the young Engels, as well as his evolution in these areas, is remarkable. Engels' communist option – given his intimate drive to link thought and action – is clarified with the indication of his German sources (namely Feuerbach and Moses Hess, catalyzed by reading Hegel) and the learning provided by the 21-month stay (1842 -1844) in England. Also perceptive is GM's analysis of Engels' intellectual production between 1841 and 1844 – his interventions in the English Chartist press, in the Rheinische Zeitung [Rhine Gazette] it is us Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher [Franco-German Annals], particularly the essay “Outline of a Critique of Political Economy” and its analysis of Thomas Carlyle.

The following chapters (VIII-XIII) deal with the troubled years 1844-1849 – from the beginning of the friendship and collaboration between Marx and Engels to the defeat of the German revolution. Already for that period, and it will be so for those referring to the years after 1850, GM had access to a larger range of already known documentary sources, so that the pioneering spirit of his original research is attenuated in comparison with that exercised in the preceding chapters. But the mass of information that, organized, he offers to his reader is impressive, with emphasis on Engels' movements, trips and political-military activities in Germany, Belgium and France.

Equally, his approaches to Engelsian intervention in Neue Rheinische Zeitung [New Rhenish Gazette], or of Engels' role in preparing the Congresses of the Communist League and in drafting the Marx-Engelsian works of those years (namely n'the german ideology, but not yetThe Holy Family and communist manifesto). GM's notations on the revolutionary process of 1848-1849 – and not only in Germany – are absolutely fruitful and attest to his profound mastery of the historical material pertinent to the movement of social classes. And, at the close of this chapter, there is an illuminating synthesis of the conditions of the revolutionary ebb and the restorative wave that followed.

The second volume, much more substantial, composed of fifteen chapters, reconstructs the life and work of Engels from his arrival in London to his death (August 05, 1895). Indeed, all of Engels' activities – as an industrialist, politician, theorist and publicist – were scrutinized by GM, who also apprehended, with sensitivity and an open mind, his personal and family relationships. Nothing essential about Engels' personality – in his condition as a singular individual and a public man – escaped the biographer's magnifying glass, who himself reached full intellectual maturity at the time of the advances in his research. The secure mastery of the economic and political-social history of Europe in the second half of the 1848th century and of the development, within its framework, of the labor movement, offered GM the factual bases to carefully and rigorously follow the evolution of Engels' thought and action in the years that go from the defeat of the revolutionary process of 1849-XNUMX to the period of rise of German social democracy.

In the pages of these fifteen chapters, many of them truly masterful, they register from the lessons that history imposed on Engelsian (and also Marx's) illusions about the imminence of a European revolutionary moment subsequent to 1848-1849 to expectations in the face of the Irish struggles for independence. Engels' full solidarity with Marx is verified – in terms of finance, personal, intellectual and political matters – a solidarity that was extended to all those who saw themselves politically persecuted. Engels' scientific interests were expanded – which would eventually involve techniques and strategies of war action, the natural sciences and political theories. It follows the evolution of his thinking in the face of the geopolitical transformations underway in a Europe that is witnessing the crisis of French Bonapartism, the experience of the Commune, the emergence of a united Germany under the imperial heel of Prussia and the tensions arising from persistent and unattended demands by national units (Italy, Poland).

There is a renewed interest in political processes taking place in European peripheries (Turkey, Russia) and in North America. It emphasizes its attention to the organizational changes of the international labor movement (International Workers' Association, Socialist International) to the nascent national workers' parties and, in particular, in the German scenario, with the constitution of social democracy and the dynamics of its internal debates. And his contribution to giving a formal-systematic configuration to the ideas and theses formulated in collaboration with Marx since the mid-1840s is highlighted.

From these pages emerges the profile of a revolutionary who is firm in political polemics (his harsh treatment of Lassalle and Bakunin, Lassalleans and anarchists) and theoretical polemics (criticism of Dühring) – and who, in the defense of principles that seem indispensable to his the victory of the proletarian project does not spare even proven comrades in the struggle (Liebknecht) from criticism. But that combines these traits with the solicitude of the most experienced revolutionary in dialogue and counseling of the youngest. Finally, the result is a full-length portrait of a man who lived and collaborated for about forty years with a genius, without ever having had the slightest feeling of envy and/or emulation – rather stimulating, understanding and admiring the theoretical superiority of the companion, with the full awareness that, like a “second violin”, it had its own light.

These are not exactly the pages that the reader will go through: this reader already knows that he will have in his hands – as indicated in the second paragraph of this “Presentation” – the condensed version, with the author's seal, of the published biography of F. Engels originally in the Netherlands in 1934. This is not the opportunity to indicate what formally and contentally differentiates them. But a few clarifications are worth it.

The two versions, the 1934 edition and the condensed one from 1936, lack detailed and precise indications of the original bibliographic sources from which GM extracted extracts and quotations from his biographee – indications that characterize a relevant formal procedure, which in the XNUMXth century ended for being generally adopted as a requirement of the academic-scientific court deed.

However, one fact should be highlighted that cannot be discarded in the appreciation of GM's work: none of his qualified readers identified any adulteration of the Engelsian formulations cited by him; if there is a possibility of discrepancies between his interpretations, his fidelity to Engels's handwriting has never been called into question. And don't forget that much of this lack is related to the Marx-Engels originals that GM was able to use, a significant part of which had not yet been printed and published at the time of writing the biography; It should be remembered that relevant Marx-Engelsian materials only became public with the launch, from 1927 onwards, of the MEGA projected by Riazanov– among them, much of his correspondence and even essential texts (such as those d'the german ideology), which only saw the light of day in 1932 and which GM had access to as unpublished manuscripts.

It is beyond dispute that the weighty autographic documentation of Marx and Engels made public after GM completed his biography of Engels allowed researchers to treat texts, data and information that were not available to GM. Evidently, mastering this documentation has enabled – and continues to enable – specialists and scholars of Marx and Engels to have a broader and richer vision for the historical reconstruction of their lives and work than the one with which GM operated; however, the gains registered with and in the bibliography released after 1932 – really substantial gains – did not anachronize GM's work, nor did they challenge its status as a classic biography (as, in a similar way, happened with the biography of Marx by Mehring ). As such, it remains an unwavering reference for explaining and understanding Engels' life and work.

Both its compositional method and the results it achieved stand out as guaranteeing traits of the referential durability of this biography. GM did not see in Engels a great man who appears on the scene of the labor movement like a god ex machina, nor, on the contrary, as a theoretical-cultural epiphenomenon of this movement. The biographer has shown himself capable of apprehending the life and work of his biographee as a process in which a singular subject constitutes himself as an expressive and representative personality of his time, placing himself simultaneously as an actor and author of his history, welcoming – through of economic, social and cultural mediations – the constraints that his class origin imposed on him and consciously directing himself towards another class option; the particularity of this subject was constituted as a project that transcended his original determinations by ideally incorporating alternative determinations objectively made possible by the society in which he moved. This biographer's procedure resulted in the reconstitution of the biographee's life and work as a dynamic unit: GM's Engels appears as a man in a unitary development, from childhood to senescence ; The result was a unique and extremely singular Engels who, however, at the limit, in his greatness and limitations, was entirely socialized and historicized. In short: the biographer was absolutely faithful to the subject.

A final comment still fits on the condensed text in 1936 of the biography of F. Engels in face of the text of 1934. It is unnecessary to emphasize that, of this condensed version (which, taking into account the volume of pages, contains approximately one-third of the material printed in 1934), expressive historical-political references and much of the factual detail, the erudite cultural references, the analytical finesse and even the stylistic refinement of the 1934 work are excluded. it reveals losses in the face of its original greatness; but it is a fact that this compressed version of the biography of F. Engels, if compared with the magnum opus that gave rise to it, has lost none of its essentiality – it also carries out the main task that GM devoted himself to in the best years of his life and that was formulated by Goethe, a master in this area as well:

The main task of biography is […] to describe and show man in his relations with the times, to what extent the whole [of these relations] opposes or favors him, what ideas he forms as a result of this about the world and society. humanity and – if you are an artist, poet, writer – how you reflect them.

For this, and for everything else, it is only up to us to salute the entry of GM's work into the bibliographic repertoire of our language, which is really - pardon for resorting to what has become commonplace, however true - the last flower of the Lazio.

* Jose Paulo Netto He is Professor Emeritus at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Author, among other books, of Karl Marx – a biography (Boitempo).


Gustav Mayer. Friedrich Engels - a biography. Translation: Pedro Davoglio. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.

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