Friedrich Engels, the second violinist of Marxism

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“Now that Marxism is in full dissolution, one will finally be able to deal with it undisturbed “, wrote the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book” Marx ?? Ghosts “. The ghost that Derrida alluded to is Marxism; it is once again going around Europe. Marxism is not dead and – according to Derrida – by no means an anachronistic phenomenon, but harbors a critical potential. This is all the more important at a time which is determined by the exploitation, impoverishment and unemployment of large groups. On the occasion of the 200th birthday of Friedrich Engels, it is appropriate to remember the “second violinist” of Marxism, as he called himself. He was in the shadows for a long time of the “giant Marx”, whom he generously and unselfishly supported financially.

Engels’ personality is characterized by a certain ambivalence: on the one hand, as a Marxist theorist, he called for class struggle, acted as a political agitator and even as a barricade fighter; On the other hand, the factory owner’s son was a hedonistic bohemian with a penchant for champagne and fox hunts, a lively person who fought duels in his youth, worked in the choir, took part in cultural events and played cards passionately. Angel ?? Joy of life lasted into old age. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, he wrote in a letter that he and the well-wishers had “drunk away until the early hours of the morning”.

Friedrich Engels was born on November 28, 1820 as the son of a wealthy industrial family in Barmen, later a district of Wuppertal. He attended high school and, at the request of his father, switched to his father’s textile company. Engels received his commercial training in Bremen, where he led a double life as a teenager – as a diligent apprentice and as a salon lion. Despite his privileged position as the son of a manufacturer, Engels was interested in economic and social problems from an early age. In 1839 in his “Letters from Wuppertal” he criticized “the terrible misery among factory workers”.

Radical critic

From 1842 Engels continued his training as a textile merchant in his father’s factory in Manchester, where he was confronted with an even greater misery for the workers. Angel ?? Commitment to the labor movement increased through encounters with supporters of various revolutionary movements. From the social reformer Robert Owen he adopted the term “social justice”, which played an important role in his conception of Marxism. The outrage over the social misery of the proletariat was the common foundation of the theoretical work with Marx. A first brief encounter took place in Cologne in 1842, where Marx worked as editor of the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”. Only a longer stay in Paris established the lifelong friendship and cooperation between the two different theorists.


Karl Marx, ca. 1865. – © Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Together with Marx, Engels became a radical critic of the capitalist economic order, which had developed enormous productivity as a result of the industrial revolution, but which only benefited a few. It made palaces for the rich, but caves for the poor. In the book “The Situation of the Working Class in England” published in 1845, Engels described in detail the catastrophic working and living conditions of the industrial proletariat. He supplemented his personal impressions with newspaper articles and scientific publications.

The exploitation of the workers was the order of the day, as was child labor in the coal mines: “Children work there, most of them around the age of 8. They are needed to open and close the train doors that separate the various departments of the mine close. To watch these doors, they had to sit alone in a dark, narrow, damp passage for twelve hours a day. ” Engels also described the desolate living conditions: “The houses are inhabited from the basement to the roof, dirty from outside to inside (…) almost no window pane can be seen, the walls crumbling, the door posts and window frames broken and loose, the doors nailed together from old boards or nonexistent. ” According to Engels’ description, entire streets were “covered with rubbish and waste that, due to the depth of the mud, were barely passable and filled with an unbearable stench”. These inhumane working and living conditions are by no means just historical snapshots of social grievances in the 19th century; they are also currently to be found in countries of the global south and in refugee camps such as Lesbos.

Angel ?? The study makes it clear why Engels and Marx called in the “Communist Manifesto” “for a violent overthrow of all previous social order”. Engels said the goal was to improve the situation of the outclassed. He was convinced that only a revolution could bring about a fundamental change – or as it says in the “Communist Manifesto”: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains; they have a world to gain.”

Barricade fights

Title page of the first edition of the Communist Party Manifesto, also known as "The Communist Manifesto", by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  - © www.marxists.org

Title page of the first edition of the Communist Party Manifesto, also known as “The Communist Manifesto”, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. – © www.marxists.org

In order to achieve this goal, the first step was the “Communist Manifesto” that Engels and Karl Marx published in London in 1848. In it, the two anti-capitalist theorists accused the bourgeoisie of ruthlessly pursuing capital accumulation. The acquisition of money is the sun, around which everything revolves, they stated; the bourgeoisie knew nothing but quick money-making; the destructive logic of private property turned people into egoists.

In order to translate the class struggle from theory into practice – according to Marx’s 13th Feuerbach thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, what matters is to change it” – Engels took part in barricade fights in his home Elberfeld in 1849 at the Baden uprising. He narrowly escaped arrest and fled to Manchester via Switzerland. There he continued his double life in a modified form: he was committed to the labor movement, at the same time he was active in his father’s factory and earned enormous sums of money as a stockbroker, which he used to support Marx and his family.

After his father’s death, Engels sold his company shares and moved to London, where he was able to live on the interest on his considerable fortune. In London, Engels wrote numerous articles for German, English and American magazines in which he analyzed socio-political and economic topics. He took over the secretariat of the “First International” for Belgium, Denmark, Portugal, Spain and Italy, where his extensive language skills were useful to him.

In their writings and newspaper articles, Engels and Marx developed a radical criticism of the capitalist economic system. This fatal development, which “brought about the deepest humiliation of mankind”, was made possible by private ownership of the means of production, which enabled the owners of factories or factories to exploit the workers. The proletarians, who did not have their own means of production, had to sell their labor; it was made a marketable commodity among other commodities “the production and destruction of which depends only on demand”. The focus was no longer on people and their needs, but on the most efficient possible performance of an anonymous subject who merely had to function. The work process alienates the worker from himself: “The worker therefore only feels outside of himself outside of work with himself and in work.”

The Marx-Engels monument in Berlin-Mitte.  - © Manfred Brückels

The Marx-Engels monument in Berlin-Mitte. – © Manfred Brückels

Marx and Engels assumed that capitalism would be replaced. The growing impoverishment and alienation of the working class would grow to such an extent, they imagined, that a revolution of the proletariat was inevitable. The proletariat can only free itself from this misery through a so-called “expropriation of the expropriators” – that is, through the revolutionary takeover of capitalist private property. This sweeping revolution would end the alienation of the working class, reshape the livelihoods of all mankind, and create “one human person.”

Proletarian Frau

In addition to his Marxist writings, Engels wrote studies on the “German Peasant War” and “On the history of early Christianity”; in both historical currents he discovered elements of communism. Reflections on feminism can be found in the work “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Engels denounced the patriarchal bourgeois family of the bourgeoisie, in which women are oppressed. For him, the woman embodied the proletariat, which must submit to the rule of the bourgeois man.

Engels saw his primary task in processing Karl Marx’s estate after the death of Karl Marx in 1883. He had only completed the first volume of the monumental work “Das Kapital”; he left his friend over a thousand pages of manuscript. In twelve years of intensive work, Engels published volumes 2 and 3, whereby his editorial work is viewed critically today. Until his death on August 5, 1895, Engels fought against the devastating effects of the capitalist economic system and continued to campaign for the Marxist labor movement – in the sense of Jacques Derrida, who stated in “Marx’s Ghosts”: “Marxism is still necessary , but only on condition that it is changed and adapted to new conditions and to a different ideological way of thinking. “



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