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Fiddles Melody: Bicentennial of Friedrich Engels, the Communist General

“For a correct appraisal of Marx’s views, an acquaintance is essential with the works of Frederick Engels, his closest fellow-thinker and collaborator. It is impossible to understand Marxism and to propound it fully without taking into account all the works of Engels.”

Lenin, 1914.

In 1893, shortly before the publication of the third volume of The Capital, former Chartist leader Julian Harney wrote to Engels: “I am glad your long voyage with Marx’s Capital is nearly ended… Never, I think, at least in modern times, has any man found so faithful, so devoted a friend and champion, as Marx has found in you.”[1] [1] He was right. It is almost impossible to find in modern history an intellectual symbiosis as perfect as that of the authors of the famous Communist Manifesto.

By Daniel Sugasti  –   November 27, 2020

However, Engels’ name rests in the shadow of Marx’s. The reduction of his role to that of friend and financial supporter of the Marx family is commonplace. This view is wrong, however unfair, even though Engels himself has repeatedly defined his personal contribution with excessive modesty: “What I contributed […] Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. If therefore rightly bears his name.[2]

In addition to being relegated, Engels’ work has been systematically attacked by various intellectuals since the twentieth century -György Lukács, Jean Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, among others- who, in the name of a pretended purified Marxism, strove to separate his thought from that of Marx, pointing out supposed theoretical, programmatic and methodological differences between the two. [3]

November marks two hundred years since the birth of Friedrich Engels, a tireless revolutionary and one of the sharpest intellects of the 19th century. The best way to remember him is to know, understand and rescue the true meaning of his legacy as a co-founder of scientific socialism.

In our view, reclaiming his theoretical-political heritage is nothing less than defending Marxism as a whole. We agree with Lenin: “After his friend Karl Marx, Engels was the finest scholar and teacher of the modern proletariat in the whole civilised world.” In other words, the proletariat possesses not one but two masters who, together, built the ‘common cause’ of teaching the working class “…to know itself and be conscious of itself, and they substituted science for dreams.[4]

An indivisible duo

It is unacceptable to dissociate Marx’s work from that of Engels. The influence of one on the other, indistinctly, acted as a constant creative source for both.

Marx’s genius is unquestionable, but the intellectual stature and militant daring of the “general,” as Engels was nicknamed, was no less. They were complementary. Engels declared himself a communist before Marx. He was also the first to become interested in the study of political economy. His article entitled Notes for a Critique of Political Economy, written in late 1843 and published in the Franco-German Annals, contributed greatly to Marx’s interest in the study of capitalist economy. Marx himself recognized this fact in 1859: “Frederick Engels, with whom I maintained a constant exchange of ideas by correspondence since the publication of his brilliant essay on the critique of economic categories (printed in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher), arrived by another road at the same result as I.” [5] This shows, in part, that Engels’ participation in the research that would lead to El Capital far exceeded the material contribution.

The intense collaboration between the two reached the point where it is very difficult to discern which party wrote which in the jointly signed works. There are texts that bear only Marx’s signature, but they were completed by Engels, as is the case with the last two volumes of The Capital. Or, as it became known much later, we can mention the articles published under Marx’s name in the American newspaper The New York Daily Tribune during the 1850s, which were written entirely by Engels -among other reasons, because he was fluent in English- so that Marx could have access to some income. Or the chapter that Marx wrote for Engels’ famous work, the Anti-Dühring (much criticized by certain “Marxians”), a fact that perhaps no one would have noticed without the spontaneous revelation made by its author in the preface to the second edition of 1886. [6]

In short, let us say that the importance of this book-as well as the separate publication of one of its sections, which became known as From Utopian Socialism to Scientific Socialism-is invaluable. Riazanov wrote that “… the younger generation which began its activity during the second half of the seventies learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophic premises, what was its method. Anti-Dühring proved the best introduction to the study of Capital.[7]

When they were young, Marx and Engels wrote The Holy Family (1844), The German Ideology (1846) and the Communist Manifesto (1848). Shortly before these common works, in 1842, Engels had already made the first political and personal contacts with the Owenist and Chartist movement and, three years later, he published his iconic Situation of the Working Class in England, on the basis of a rigorous study of official statistics and, above all, direct observation of the terrible conditions of exploitation to which the proletariat of Manchester, the factory city, was subjected.

The intense intellectual activity of both was always combined with revolutionary practice. They organized the hard programmatic struggle that transformed the Utopian League of the Just into the Communist League. When the wave of bourgeois democratic revolutions began in 1848, they left Belgium to settle in Cologne. In this city they published, for almost a year, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhineland Gazette). In 1849, an intrepid Engels volunteered to join the revolutionary army of Baden-Palatinate, specifically the detachment under General Willich. There he participated in the elaboration of military plans and personally took part in four great battles. The counter-revolution that followed the defeat of the Spring of the Peoples caused Marx and Engels, like thousands of other revolutionaries, to suffer a harsh persecution that forced both of them to emigrate to London.

The Years in Manchester

At the end of 1850, Engels had to settle in Manchester to work in the firm that his father co-owned, the Ermen & Engels. The monotony of sitting at a desk adding columns and attending to the firm’s multilingual correspondence, besides being terribly tedious for a man with his intellectual gifts, left little time for practical political activity – “I feel a deadly tedium here,” he wrote to Marx. Though he detested his work routine in the “filthy trade,” he understood that this sacrifice was necessary to earn the money that would allow Marx to devote himself entirely to writing his masterpiece.

Engels’ material contribution is not always valued in its real dimension. The living conditions of emigration were extremely harsh: “[…] had it not been for Engels’ constant and selfless financial aid, Marx would not only have been unable to complete Capital but would have inevitably have been crushed by want,”[8] Lenin explained in 1914. Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, described those years as one of “great hardship, continual acute privations, and real misery.[9]

The positive aspect of this long period -from 1850 to 1870- is the almost daily correspondence he maintained with Marx, prodigious in lessons about numerous theoretical and political problems. Marx, who called him a “walking encyclopedia”, often asked him for data or opinions for The Capital. In fact, for him there was no more authoritative judgment than that of Engels. Although physically separated, the close intellectual collaboration also offered moments of deep emotion that, in their own way, help illustrate the bonds of comradeship and humanity between the two.

Among others, there is a moving letter that Marx writes to Engels to inform him that he had finished the first volume of The Capital: “So this volume is finished. I owe it to you alone that it was possible! Without your self-sacrifice for me I could not possibly have managed the immense labour demanded by the 3 volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks.[10]

Without you, I would never have been able to bring the work to a conclusion,” Marx wrote to his friend in May 1867, “and I can assure you it always weighed like a nightmare on my conscience that you were allowing your fine energies to be squandered and to rust in commerce, chiefly for my sake, and, into the bargain, that you had to share all my petites misères as well.[11] Indeed, the support provided by Engels was fundamental to the completion of this work. In response to Marx’s every need, whether theoretical or personal, Engels always responded unconditionally. The material support, besides being a sign of deep friendship, was always conceived by Engels as a concrete contribution to a common cause. Before each request of Marx, his guiding principle was always: “I am ready to do everything that depends on me“. When The Capital saw the light, Engels felt that his years of sacrifice in Manchester, bogged down in “demoralizing” work, had been rewarded.

Without pause, Engels began to write reviews from many angles about the new book. In order to counteract the “bourgeois conspiracy of silence,” he sent his articles to workers’ and bourgeois newspapers in various countries. The bold publicity campaign that Engels headed contributed enormously to making Marxism better known and, little by little, strengthening it in the European workers’ movement.

Another three years had to pass before Friedrich announced to his partner Ermen that he was leaving the company. Thus, on July 1, 1869, a lively Engels was able to write to Marx: “Hurrah! Today doux commerce [sweet business] is at an end, and I am a free man.”[12] The general was ready to return to action. “In the last eighteen years, I have been able to do as good as nothing directly for our cause, and have had to devote all my time to bourgeois activities,”[13] he told Friedrich Lessner, an 1848 veteran. At 49, he was eager to meet Marx again in the same ideological-political trenches they had dug together since the 1840s. So did Marx, who celebrated his faithful friend’s “escape from Egyptian bondage” by giving in to the temptation to “[drink] ‘one glass too many’”.[14] Engels was now able to use all his time, energy and qualities to devote himself to the communist cause. He was brimming with vitality: “I am another man and I feel ten years younger,” he wrote to his mother. His indispensable collaboration would come at a good time.

Regent’s Park Road, the headquarters

In 1870, Engels returned to London. After almost two decades, he could return to work directly with Marx.

Engels was very happy with the house he ended up renting in the British capital (a building at 122 Regent’s Park Road), mainly because it was a “good ten-minute walk from Marx and his family.[15] The “Moor,” as he was affectionately called, resided on Maitland Park Road, where Engels went almost daily. Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor noted that “they sometimes went for a walk together but just as often they remained in my father’s room… Frequently they walked up and down side by side in silence. Or again, each would talk about what was then mainly occupying him until they stood face to face and laughed aloud, admitting that they had been weighing opposite plans for the last half hour.” [16]

The common work had a division of labor that Engels explained: “As a consequence of the division of labour that existed between Marx and myself, it fell to me to present our opinions in the periodical press, that is to say, particularly in the fight against opposing views, in order that Marx should have time for the elaboration of his great basic work. Thus it became my task to present our views, for the most part in a polemical form, in opposition to other kinds of views.[17]

Regarding this tireless -and fundamental- work as a polemicist and propagandist, David Riazanov commented in one of his 1922 lectures: “Engels pounced now upon an article that especially appealed to him, now upon a fact of contemporary history in order that he might illustrate with individual cases the profound difference between scientific socialism and other socialist systems, or throw light on some obscure practical question from the point of view of scientific socialism, or show the practical application of his method.”[18]

Engels, of course, had participated in 1864 in the process of founding the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, but it was not until 1870 that he played a major role. Once in London, Engels assumed a leading role in the General Council, the day-to-day leadership of the International. He assumed the tasks of secretary responsible for relations with Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Denmark, as well as a member of the finance committee. He participated energetically in all sorts of programmatic and organizational disputes against the harmful influence of the followers of Giuseppe Mazzini, Lassalle, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Auguste Blanqui, the British trade-unionists and Mikhail Bakunin. The immense energy deployed by Engels relieved the political and organizational work that Marx had carried out until then, and in this way he was able to dedicate himself almost entirely to his studies for the next volumes of The Capital.

On his deathbed, Engels would confess to Kautsky that those years, from 1870 to 1872, had been the most important years of his and Marx’s public lives.

After Marx’s death, Engels had to bear all the weight of continuing the task he had undertaken with his comrade. He came to the forefront after having occupied all his life, in his own words, the second place.

He assumed his new responsibility not without concern. No one understood better than he the gravity of losing Marx. In 1884 he wrote to Becker: “Rather, my misfortune is that since we lost Marx I have been supposed to represent him. I have spent a lifetime doing what I was fitted for, namely playing second fiddle, and indeed I believe I acquitted myself reasonably well… But now that I am suddenly expected to take Marx’s place…[19]

There was a lot to do. Engels set out to sort out Marx’s scientific legacy. Among his papers, he found the unfinished manuscripts of The Capital. He set aside his own works and devoted himself to completing what we know as the second and third books of The Capital, published in 1885 and 1894, respectively[20]. Engels did not have time to prepare for the press the fourth volume, which became known as Theories of Surplus-Value, the title given by Kautsky when he published it in German in 1905-1910.

The editing of the last two volumes involved an immense amount of work. Engels had to order the papers and take up the work where Marx left it incomplete, especially the materials of the third volume, which were little more than loose notes; he had to carry out new research and deepen others; order manuscripts and understand notes and abbreviations with Marx’s almost illegible calligraphy; cut; edit; rigorously verify the translations (“I tried being more faithful to the original!”). “Quotations from sources in no kind of order, piles of them jumbled together, collected simply with a view to future selection. Besides that there is the handwriting which certainly cannot be deciphered by anyone but me, and then only with difficulty,[21] an Engels dazed by the chaotic state in which his friend’s archives were found wrote to Bebel.

Nevertheless, Engels accomplished this arduous task with satisfaction: “I can truly say that while I work at this book, I am living in communion with him.” [22]

Without Engels, Marx’s magnum opus, the most profound scientific analysis of the functioning of capitalist production and the struggle that the bourgeoisie and the worker wage on its basis, would have remained incomplete. This task acquires historical weight, since there was no other person capable of concluding it. With justice, Lenin stated that: “Indeed, these two volumes of The Capital are the work of both Marx and Engels.”

In the midst of the edition of Marx’s works, Engels was able to publish important works of his, such as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884); Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886); the manuscripts that later composed Dialectics of Nature, besides writing prefaces to new editions of previous texts.

This, not to mention that after 1883 Engels also remained the main leader of the process of building what would become the Second International, in the context of a notable strengthening of the European workers’ movement, and of Marxism among its ranks, advising cadres and parties from various countries on issues of principle, tactics and organization. Socialist leaders from different countries met in his house. Up until his death, 122 Regent’s Park Road served as the headquarters of the “general staff” of European socialism.

The end

The militant side of Marx and Engels, as is known, is systematically minimized – when not criticized or simply omitted – by different currents of writers and academics, however much many of them call themselves Marxists.

The academia presents the founders of scientific socialism as desk philosophers. This is a historical falsification. Neither Marx nor Engels were commentators on reality. All their theoretical efforts were in the service of providing the proletariat with a scientific program that could be taken up by the best elements of the working class.

For them, it was not just a matter of interpreting the world, but of transforming it.

In this sense, Engels, besides being a brilliant theoretician, was a politician passionate about the concrete problems posed by the class struggle of his time; about union problems; about problems of party building and organization; about the theoretical formation of new generations of communist cadres. Shortly before his death, he maintained the same restless spirit, the same passion that inflamed his youth. “I have to follow the movement in five large and a lot of small European countries and the U. S. America,” he wrote to Laura Marx-Lafargue on 17 December 1894. He would also mention that his mailbox had “an ever increasing crowd of correspondents, more than at the time of the International!“. Faced with the growing demands of a growing Marxist movement, everyone turned to the old general. He had a remarkable ability to conceive of tactics, but always subordinating them to the principles and the communist program he drew up with Marx. Among other texts, in 1891, he warned: “the honest opportunists are the most dangerous to the working-class movement.[23]

Between the end of 1880 and the beginning of 1890, the English workers’ movement experienced a hopeful revival. In July 1888, the strike of the workers at the Bryant & May (Matchgirls Strike) factory in London involved more than 3,000 workers, in one form or another. In August 1890 a powerful strike of over 100,000 dock workers in London (Great Dock Strike) broke out, ending in a resounding proletarian victory. On May 4, 1890, an impressive march of 200,000 workers in Hyde Park impacted British politics. Engels, present at the event, exclaimed: “What wouldn’t I give for Marx to have witnessed this awakening, he who, on this self-same English soil, was alive to the minutest symptom![24] After the victory of the strike in the London ports, he wrote: “Hitherto the East End[25] had been in a state of poverty-stricken stagnation, its hallmark being the apathy of men whose spirit had been broken by hunger, and who had abandoned all hope… Then, last year, there came the victorious strike of the [Bryant & May] match-girls. And now, this gigantic strike of the most demoralized elements of the lot, the dock labourers…[26]

Between August and September 1888, he traveled to the United States. There he witnessed a young workers’ movement which, stripped of the vicious traditions of European politics, showed tremendous “American vigour”. By August 1893, the Second International was expanding across the European continent. Engels attended its congress in Zurich. The more than 400 delegates gave his closing speech an outstanding ovation. In September, he gave a lecture in Berlin before thousands of social-democrat militants and working-class activists.[27]  The future looked promising. Engels repeated: “How I wish Marx were alive to see this.

In addition to his passion for politics, Friedrich Engels was a man enthusiastic about the scientific discoveries and technological advances of the late nineteenth century, mainly in the fields of biology, anthropology, mathematics, physics, chemistry… Military science, on the other hand, occupied his mind for many years.

Considering this brief synthesis of Engels’ work, it is difficult to admit his modest self-designation of “second fiddle” in relation to Marx. Wilhelm Liebknecht -Karl’s father- noted the sterility of the discussion about their importance: “What was supplied by the one, what by the other? An idle question! It is of one mould, and Marx and Engels are one soul, as inseparable in the Communist Manifesto as they remained to their death in all their working and planning…” [28]

Death prevented Engels from fulfilling his wish “to contemplate from a pinhole the arrival of the new century.” In January 1895 he had begun work on the edition of the complete works of Marx and his own. In April, he began to prepare what was to be the fourth volume of The Capital.  He planned, on the other hand, to re-edit his work The Peasant War in Germany, in addition to writing a biography of Marx and a history of the International. Everything remained unfinished.

Engels suffered from esophageal cancer. The advance of the disease, meanwhile, had little impact on his vital, cheerful, penetrating personality. Engels, to the scandal of certain academic circles distilling puritanism, always celebrated life. A good host, he loved to open the doors of his house to his friends and comrades, watering political discussions with wine and Pilsener pints. His birthday celebrations, Christmas or meetings following the counting of votes for the German Reichstag, used to extend into the early hours of the morning. He was a lover of art, poetry, music, languages, travel, loved to ride horses, meet new people and places. He enjoyed his vacations on the beaches of Eastbourne to the fullest. In November 1894 he bequeathed a good sum of money to the German party to the care of Beber and Singer, to whom he requested “drink a bottle of good wine in my memory.” The last known letter was to Laura Marx. He expected “at last a crisis approaching” for the painful “potato field” that had formed on his neck “so that the swellings may be opened and relief secured.” Then the farewell: “I am not in strength to write long letters, so good bye. Here’s your good health in a bumper of lait de poule [milk egg-flip] fortified by a dose of cognac vieux [old brandy].” [29]

He died on August 5, 1895 at the age of 74. According to his “distinct wish“, the ashes were thrown “into the sea at the first opportunity,” at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne.

[1]     HUNT, Tristam. The Frock-Coated Communist. The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. London: Penguin Group (2009). Epub book

[2]     ENGELS, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy [1886]. In

[3]     WELMOWICKI, José. Las contribuciones de Engels al marxismo. Revista Marxismo Vivo – Nueva Época, n.º 16, 2020, pp. 55-68.

[4]     LENIN, V. I. Frederick Engels. In

[5]     MARX, Karl. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. In:

[6]     Engels wrote: “I read the whole manuscript to him before it was printed, and the tenth chapter of the part on economics (From Kritische Geschichte) was written by Marx but unfortunately had to be shortened somewhat by me for purely external reasons. As a matter of fact, we had always been accustomed to help each other out in special subjects.”

[7]     RIAZANOV, David. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Chapter IX. In:

[8]     LENIN, V. I. Karl Marx. A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism [1914]. In:

[9]     HUNT, Tristam. The Frock-Coated Communist…

[10]   MARX to ENGELS. Letter, 16 August 1867. M&E Collected Works. London: Lawrence & Wishart (2010). V. 42, p. 402.

[11]   MARX to ENGELS. Letter, 7 May 1867. M&E Collected Works, V. 42, p. 370.

[12]   ENGELS to MARX. Letter, 1 July 1869. M&E Collected Works, V. 43, p. 299

[13]   ENGELS to F. LESSNER. Letter, 4 April 1869. M & E Collected Works. V. 43, p. 252

[14]   MARX to ENGELS. Letter, 3 July 1869. M & E Collected Works. V. 43, p. 303

[15]   HUNT, Tristam. The Frock-Coated Communist

[16]   Idem

[17]   ENGELS, F. The Housing Question. 1887 Preface to the Second German edition. In

[18]   RIAZANOV, David. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Chapter IX. In:

[19]   ENGELS to J. P. BECKER. Letter, 15 October 1884. M&E Collected Works, V. 47, p. 201.

[20]   The third volume was published in Hamburg in December 1894, just eight months before Engels’ death.

[21]   HUNT, Tristam. The Frock-Coated Communist

[22]   Idem

[23]   LENIN, V. I. Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International (1915). In:

[24]   HUNT, Tristam. The Frock-Coated Communist…

[25]   The East End was the poorest and most neglected London working-class area, associated with poverty, disease, overcrowding and crime.

[26]   Op. Cit.

[27] MAYER, Gustav. Friedrich Engels…, pp. 879-880. (Spanish edition)

[28] LIEBKNCHT, W. Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs (1896). In:

[29]   ENGELS to L. LAFARGUE. Letter, 23 July 1895. M & E Collected Works. V. 50, p. 526

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