Friedrich Engels, unlikely Marxist

Friedrich Engels died on August 5th, 1895. He is best known, of course, as the person who collaborated with Karl Marx to develop the theory of Communism. He co-wrote several publications with Marx, including, most famously, "The Communist Manifesto." He himself was born into a wealthy German family, and his father owned large cotton mills in both Germany and Britain. It was from the proceeds of these that he financed his own life, and later financed Karl Marx to work on "Das Kapital." After Marx's death, Engels edited the 2nd and 3rd volumes of it.

His own philosophy was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Hegel, and he was associated with the Young Hegelians while attending lectures at the University of Berlin. Suffused throughout his work was the notion of dialectic, which Engels applied to the material world as "dialectical materialism." The notion that real-world material conditions, such as the division of classes, contained contradictions that could ultimately be resolved only by revolutionary clashes, formed the basis of the Communist revolutionary creed.

Engels wrote essays about how the working classes lived in Manchester, and sent them to Marx for publication. These formed the basis of his influential book, "The Condition of the Working Class in England" (1845), which was not translated into English until 1887. It painted a grim picture of working-class life in Northern England, with poor quality housing, sanitation, food, and conditions of work. Its influence was such that for a century after he wrote it, historians treated the Industrial Revolution as something that had brought squalor to working people. What Engels had not appreciated was that, bad though the conditions he saw were, they had been worse in the rural hovels from which people had moved into the towns and cities. Industrial work was an improvement on the wretched, impoverished, malnourished and short lives they had lived in the country.

It was not until T S Ashton published "The Industrial Revolution" in 1948 that the Engels view was reversed, and people began to see that revolution as one of the greatest advances mankind had ever made. And far from the violent clashes through which history was supposed to achieve its inevitable destiny, people in the English-speaking world began to see more merit in the Darwinian view of gradual evolution than in the Hegelian one of spasmodic clashes.

In Russia, though, the Communist revolutionaries who seized power placed Engels alongside Marx as the intellectual justification for their actions, and many posters showed the three of them in heroic poses, with Lenin as the logical successor to Marx and Engels, and the heir to their tradition. Engels had written that the state's only purpose was to abate class antagonisms, and once social classes based on property had ended, the state would have no further purpose and would wither away. This did not happen, of course, in Russia or any other Communist country. Quite the reverse.

Engels presented the picture of a most unlikely Communist. He liked fox-hunting and poetry, and liked to live the good life, holding famous Sunday parties for the left-wing intellectuals of his day, parties that went on into the small hours of the morning. And he was wealthy enough to indulge his love of music, art and literature. His personal motto was "take it easy." If only he had done more of that, the world would almost certainly have been a better place.