Friedrich Engels

Dora Longo Bahia. Occupation, 2011 Acrylic on wall, 305 x 587 cm


The socialist who wanted a pleasant life for everyone

While most radical artists have spent the last few years demanding that statues of imperial heroes be torn down, in Manchester they have gone the other way. In 2017, filmmaker Phil Collins transported, in a pickup truck, a statue from Friederich Engels from eastern Ukraine, a former colony of the Soviet empire, to the heart of “northern powerhouse”[1].

It was a magnificent and counterintuitive gesture: to put the man who hated her 'Cottonopolis' at the heart of your business nexus. With the exception of a courtly blue plaque on Primorose Hill, north of London, and a plaque that once stood on Eastbourne beach (where his ashes were dumped), the statue is one of the hopelessly few reminders we have of one of the greatest emigrants from Great Britain.

This month marks the bicentennial of the Rhine turned reluctant Mancunian turned old Londoner.

Always content with playing “second fiddle to such a splendid first fiddle” like Karl Marx (“How can anyone envy genius; is it something so special that we, who don’t have it, know it is something unattainable from the start? ”), he deserves so much more than just being cast as the supporting male in the story.

Not only was he instrumental in shaping twentieth-century Marxism, but his own vision of socialism appears to be more relevant to our contemporary concerns than Marx's pure political economy.

Born on November 28, 1820, in Barmen, around the Wupper valley in Prussia, Engels grew up as the heir of a strictly Calvinist, capitalist and suffocatingly bourgeois family of textile merchants. His childhood was one of love, full of relatives, family wealth and communal cohesion, in what has been called “the German Manchester”. But from an early age Engels found the human costs of his family's prosperity hard to bear. At just 19 years old, he wrote about the plight of industrial workers “in small rooms where people breathe more coal fumes and dust than oxygen”, and lamented the creation of “completely demoralized people without fixed housing or stable employment”.

After falling under the spell of the Young Hegelians at the University of Berlin, it was Manchester in the 1840s that turned him towards socialism. Sent to work in the family factory in Salford, at the epicenter of the industrial revolution, he saw how unregulated capitalism entails constant dehumanization: “Women unable to conceive, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations devastated, afflicted with disease and illnesses, purely to satisfy the interests of the bourgeoisie”, as he puts it in his greatest work, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)

What Engels also brilliantly revealed in this book was how urban planning and regeneration were areas of class struggle. He is the father of modern urban sociology, explaining, in a way we are only familiar with today, how urban space is always socially and economically constructed. Current commentators on the privatization of public space, or Mike Davis's work on our planet of slums, all exist in the shadow of the pioneering Engelian critique of industrial Manchester.

After the failure of the continental revolutions of 1848, Engels was forced to return to Manchester in the role of cotton lord to finance Marx's philosophy. He hated it. "Bargaining is too brutal, the most brutal of all is the fact of not just being a bourgeois... but being one who actively takes sides against the proletariat."

This painful personal sacrifice ensured the publication of Das Kapital in 1867 and, with it, the synthesis of the Marxian worldview. Unfortunately, Marx's life's work soon seemed in danger of falling victim to the "bourgeois conspiracy of silence" until Engels began to organize much-needed publicity. It was Engels' popularization of Marx's central insights, in his pamphlets Anti-Duhring e Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which launched Marxism as a compelling global doctrine.

“Most people are too lazy to read books like The capital”, Engels explained, as his own intelligible guides to Marxism were gaining readers across France, Germany, America, Italy and Russia.

After Marx's death in 1883, Engels took advantage of the freedom to expand Marx's thinking in new directions. In his study of the history of family life, Engels laid the foundations of a socialist feminism with its connection of capitalist exploitation with gender inequality.

Similarly, Engels pioneered the Marxist vision of colonial liberation with his preliminary analysis of imperialism as a central component of Western capitalism. From Vietnam to Ethiopia, from China to Venezuela, Engels's theory of emancipation was embraced by anti-imperialist freedom advocates even as the Soviet empire mobilized it to expand across Eastern Europe.

Engels was a figure of profound historical and philosophical significance. However, what I discovered, like his biographer, was that his vision of socialism can also be highly uplifting: the appalling, corrupt, anti-intellectual egalitarian Marxism of the XNUMXth century would have horrified him. “The concept of a socialist society as the realm of equality is a one-sided French concept,” he said. Instead, Engels believed in cascading life's pleasures – food, sex, drink, culture, travel, even fox hunting – across all classes. Socialism should not be an endless meeting of the Labor Party, but the enjoyment of life. The real challenge of living in Manchester was that he could not find a 'single opportunity to make use of my recognized talent in mixing a lobster salad'.

It is therefore entirely fitting that his statue now commands Tony Wilson Square, named after the intense co-founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda club, which also believed in the finer things in life. Finally, 200 years after his birth, and far removed from his homeland, we have a proper memory of Engels in his rightful place.

* Tristram Hunt is professor of history at Queen Mary University of London. Author, among other books, of Communist in a Coat: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Record).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian

Translator's note

[1] The “Norhthern Powerhouse” is the UK Government's vision for a highly connected and globally competitive northern economy with a thriving private sector, a highly educated population and world-renowned civic and business leadership. It geographically covers 11 LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships). One of them is Manchester. Source:


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