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Friedrich Engels

An introduction to the life and work of Friedrich Engels, partner of Karl Marx and co-author of the Communist Manifesto.

Friedrich Engels (1820-95) is best-known for his collaboration with Karl Marx on the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and for his support for Marx and his endless prevarication in the decades-long process of completing Das Kapital. Yet Engels was a prominent thinker in his own right and made numerous contributions to social thought and, indeed, socialism. In addition, his vivacious and gregarious character were important human factors in ensuring that Marxist thought achieved the initial popularity that it did, prior to the closer analyses of the concepts within it.

After early problems with parents and society, during which he dabbled with literature and journalism and the philosophy of Hegel, Engels was dispatched by his parents to oversee a textile factory in Manchester. He spent many years in this venture and he soon developed an interest in chronicling and understanding the often desperate state of the post-industrial revolution English working class. This was recorded in perhaps his most powerful individual work, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. In this book, which makes for compelling reading even today, Engels dissects the class system that disfigured what was then perhaps the richest and most powerful country in the world.

During his years in England, he enjoyed an intimate relationship with Mary Burns, a young woman with a sympathetic character who proved to be an eminently suitable companion for Engels: the two never married because of Engels’s opposition to what he considered to be the insupportable and abusive power structures embedded in the institution of marriage. She died in 1862.

In 1844, Engels decided to return to continental Europe and it was then that he established his relationship with Karl Marx and fellow thinkers. Sustaining themselves with conversation and debate, among journalistic commissions and other writing assignments, Marx and Engels completed the Communist Manifesto amidst tightening police scrutiny. The 1848 revolution in France further intensified suppression of Communist thought and, while Marx settled down to write, Engels resolved to return to his position in his father’s hated factory in Manchester since only in that way would he be able to provide the material support for Marx, his growing family and his rather chaotic lifestyle. Without the material support provided by Engels, it is far from clear that Das Kapital would ever have been finished and, further, Engels was involved with editing later volumes of the work in his declining years and after the death of Marx. His contribution was immense.

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