Lindsey German


Frederick Engels: life of a revolutionary

(Part 2)


The First International

Solidarity among British workers with the Northern side in the American Civil War, the massive sympathy for Garibaldi’s attempt at Italian unification in 1861, and support for the democratic struggle in Poland, all contributed to a sense of internationalism among the British working class and also formed the backdrop for Marx and Engels’ decision to involve themselves directly in working class organisation for the first time since the collapse of the 1848 revolutions. The International Working Men’s Association, known as the First International, was set up in 1864 and held its first Congress in 1865. Marx was absolutely central to its political development and to the fact that it held together as an organisation over the ensuing years.

The International was an amalgam of very different politics, drawn from its two main national components, the English and French. Its main English support stemmed from the London Trades Council, a body which was beginning to feel its industrial strength after years when the working class had remained quiescent. But it represented only a minority of the working class, the skilled trade unionists, and its leaders – men like the shoemaker George Odger, the cabinet maker Robert Applegarth and the carpenter William Cremer – held politics a fairly long way from Marx’s. One of their main aims in establishing the International was to stop foreign scab labour from undermining trade unions in Britain, although they were also keen on developing solidarity with movements for democracy in other countries. The French were followers of Proudhon, and therefore adhered to some form of artisan socialism which criticised capitalism from the point of view of returning to small scale production. Consequently they were hostile to the state and were also opposed to strikes and revolution.

Marx drew up the inaugural address and rules for the General Council of the International which was based in London, where he tried to steer a course between his own politics and those of the various components of the International, in order to ensure that the organisation got off the ground and made some advances in organising across national boundaries. Marx wrote enthusiastically to Engels on 1 May 1865:

The great success of the International Association is this: the Reform League [based on agitation for the suffrage] is our work ... We have baffled all attempts of the middle class to mislead the working class ... If we succeed in re-electrifying the political movement of the English working class, our Association ... will have done more for the working class of Europe than has been possible in any other way. [69]

Again in 1866 he wrote, “The workers’ demonstrations in London, which are marvellous compared with anything we have seen in England since 1849, are purely the work of the International.” [70]

Marx’s other great achievement in the mid-1860s was the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867. Marx was well aware of the debt he owed Engels both in terms of financial support and of the constant collaboration which had enabled him to test his ideas and theories with his oldest friend:

So this volume is finished. It was thanks to you alone that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks! [71]

Engels, being in Manchester, was clearly not involved in the day to day work of the International but he followed the politics and the international situation closely. When war broke out between Austria and Prussia in 1866, Engels wrote a series of articles on the conflict and, unusually, quite wrongly predicted the defeat of Prussia. However, he also saw that the Prussian victory would lead inevitably to German unification on Prussia’s terms and the falling out between Bismarck and his erstwhile ally, Louis Napoleon.

Engels also maintained a strong interest in the situation in Ireland, which reached crisis point in the late 1860s. The Fenian movement of Irish nationalists organised a series of armed protests against the British state and so brought home the struggle against Irish colonial oppression to the British ruling class. The huge Irish immigrant population in cities like Manchester and London supported their struggle. The reprisals against the Fenians by the British ruling class were vicious and there was an outcry when the “Manchester Martyrs” were hanged in 1867. There was, however, just as in more recent times, a backlash against the Irish nationalists among English workers, especially when a bombing in Clerkenwell killed ordinary people.

Engels wanted to write a history of Ireland and visited the country with Lizzie and Eleanor Marx in 1869, after he had left Ermen and Engels. He wanted to explain the economic reasons why Ireland was kept in subordination, but why also this subordination had not – despite the best efforts of the English rulers – wiped out Irish identity, culture and nationalism. He wrote to Marx on his return, “Irish history shows one how disastrous it is for a nation to have subjected another nation... things would have taken another turn in England too, if it had not been necessary to rule in Ireland by military means and to create a new aristocracy there.” [72]

However, the book did not materialise. Some sections were found in Engels’ papers after his death, but it seems that much of it was never completed. Perhaps the reason for this was the turn in political events and, to a lesser extent, in Engels’ personal circumstances. He and Lizzie moved to London in the autumn of 1870, to a house in Regent’s Park Road, since he now had the financial independence to work full time at politics.

The political situation in Europe was then in flux. When war broke out between the two major continental European powers, France and Germany, in the autumn of 1870, Engels backed Germany at first, seeing its expansion as the means of defeating the French emperor on the one hand, and of curtailing the power of reactionary Russia on the other. It was only after Napoleon III’s defeat at the battle of Sedan that he saw the main threat to European workers as German expansionism. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine (the provinces on France’s eastern borders) by Germany, Marx and Engels predicted, would only lead to further war between France and Germany.

Events in France were of central political importance in 1870 and 1871. They also brought out the political differences in the International, which could be smoothed over in periods of relative social calm but could not hold together when there were fundamental questions at stake. Such was the situation which Marx and Engels now faced.

The overthrow of Napoleon III led to political turmoil in France between September 1870, when the French army was defeated, through to the end of May 1871, when the Paris Commune was finally defeated and the reactionaries took control. A republic was proclaimed in September 1870, but very soon there were differences over what sort of republic it was to be. Should it continue to govern in the interests of large scale capital, as the Second Empire had done, or should there be a government which represented the workers and small shopkeepers? The collapse of the Second Empire led to various localised attempts at insurrection. They failed but in Paris the possibility of revolutionary government was on the agenda.

Paris was under siege from October by occupying Prussian troops. This led to a radicalisation within the city, which was greatly strengthened in the new year when the existing government made peace with the Prussians in return for the siege being lifted. The French government refused to return to Paris, staying in Versailles until the militant population was disarmed. This led to the revolution on 18 March which established the Paris Commune.

The Commune was the first ever attempt at working class revolutionary government and was therefore of critical importance to Marx and Engels. They saw it as a model for a workers’ state: representatives were elected and accountable, the whole working population was involved in politics and decision making, and perhaps most importantly there were attempts to set up a form of state power or armed rule in opposition to the army and police of the old capitalist state. The Commune was real democracy in action.

Its life span was short. Just two months after its inception the Commune was once again besieged, this time by the Versailles government’s army. The Commune was put down after over a week of the bloodiest fighting imaginable: thousands were killed by counter-revolutionaries and many more were exiled or deported.

During the Commune’s closing days Marx set about writing one of his best known works, The Civil War in France, which was commissioned by the General Council of the International. It was delivered verbally to the General Council meeting on 30 May and then printed as a pamphlet.

Here Marx spelt out his ideas on the capitalist state and how the crushing of the Commune represented the most basic class instincts not just of the French bourgeoisie, but of its counterparts elsewhere: “Class rule is no longer able to disguise itself in a national uniform; the national governments are one as against the proletariat!” [73] The Commune was a new form of democracy, “a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time”. [74] Education was open to all and free from religious or state interference. Public functionaries were paid workmen’s wages. Judges and magistrates were accountable and elected. The army and conscription were abolished, replaced by a National Guard made up of all citizens. Elections were by universal male suffrage.

The crucial lesson of the Commune for Marx was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. [75] Instead revolutionaries had to be prepared to smash the old capitalist state, which was there to protect the capitalist class and its property, and to establish in its place a workers’ state, based on the most complete form of democracy and on new forms of power: a workers’ militia which could protect the gains of the revolution and ensure that the capitalists did not regain power. This, Engels said, was what he and Marx meant by “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. [76]

The need for a completely new form of state was vindicated by the terrible events with which the Commune met its end. The attempt to storm heaven by the Communards was destroyed in the most bloody way by the men – and women – of property. It became the habit of fashionable women to go and watch the execution of many thousands of Communards in the days following its defeat.

There were demonstrations of solidarity with the Commune among workers in many different countries. The workers’ movement internationally saw the Commune’s defeat as a blow to them all. Conversely, the rulers of all the capitalist powers took heart from the smashing of this first workers’ government, and themselves launched a witch hunt against the International. In 1872 membership of the International became a punishable offence in France. Similarly repressive measures were considered elsewhere, and Bismarck proposed a European alliance against the International. [77]

The backlash led to the fracturing of the International. The English trade union leaders Odger and Lucraft left the organisation which they had helped to found because they objected to The Civil War in France. In fact, they were out of sympathy with the whole experience of the Commune, which was far too revolutionary for their cautious reformist politics. On the other hand, Marx and Engels now found a full scale battle on their hands with the Russian anarchist Bakunin, who they suspected of having joined the International in order to wreck its organisation.

Marx and Engels therefore spent the remainder of 1871 and much of 1872 on two tasks: organising relief work and political solidarity with the refugees from the Commune, many of whom fled to London, and fighting against the influence of Bakunin and his followers in the International.

To this end they held a closed conference in September 1871, which Marx and his supporters were able to dominate because so few of their opponents turned up. They argued strongly for a centralised organisation against the decentralising tendencies of Bakunin. In the months that followed the debates continued, with Engels – responsible for corresponding with Italy and Spain – spending a great deal of time trying to win more influence for his and Marx’s ideas in areas where Bakunin and his supporters were relatively strong.

Things came to a head at the Hague conference in 1872, which Engels was largely responsible for organising and where he still pushed for strengthening the General Council so that it could, if necessary, discipline or control the various sections, and so that it could provide some impetus to the formation of independent working class parties throughout Europe which were firmly committed to revolutionary upheaval.

Opposition to Marx and Engels again came from two sources: the English trade union leaders did not want a tight revolutionary disciplined organisation because this cut across their pragmatic and timid politics, and they did not want to be tied to a political line. The anarchists on the other hand also wanted decentralisation because it gave them more influence, and also because it fitted better with their denial of the state and its importance. At the Hague conference the English trade union leaders preferred to back the anarchists.

But despite the trade union leaders’ attitude Engels realised that the majority of delegates would vote with him and Marx. He argued that Bakunin was in fact organising a centralised secret conspiracy, quite against the interests and spirit of the International. Engels then pushed the question of Bakunin’s secret organisation into a subcommittee, managed to win the expulsion of Bakunin and his ally Guillaume, and then proposed the removal of the General Council to New York. From America it was unable to influence events in Europe and was much less prey to internal intrigue.

The last days of the First International, like any infighting on the left, are not its best testament. Engels and Marx did what they thought necessary because they saw no way of salvaging the International. The course of the class struggle had been on the rise in the latter half of the 1860s. The bloody reaction which followed the defeat of the Commune left the revolutionaries much as they had been after 1848. Left wing circles were dominated by internal squabbles and had less and less contact with reality. Marx and Engels were under attack from all sides. All that they could see to do was to allow the First International to die a natural death and wait for a new rise in class struggle which would enable international socialist organisation to be rebuilt. This time it would take nearly 20 years and Engels would be undertaking the task without Marx, and with a new generation of socialists.



The end of an era

Engels now lived in London, and so was able to collaborate much more closely with Marx, as his increased intervention in the International between 1870 and 1872 demonstrated. He continued his military writing and interests, and was given the nickname of “the General” by the Marx family because of his skill and enthusiasm in military matters.

He also began a number of other works. He started work on his book The Dialectics of Nature in 1873, although he continued to write notes for it over a number of years and it was never completed. It represented an attempt to apply his philosophical ideas to the study of science. [78] But perhaps his most important writing in these years was a polemic against the ideas of one man who was becoming increasingly influential inside the German socialist movement and whom Engels and Marx regarded as a dangerous miseducator of even some of the most experienced socialists.

The background to the argument was the Franco-Prussian War and the collapse of the Commune. This was a watershed in European politics. Germany replaced France as the pivotal continental European power. This had its impact on the workers’ movements in various countries. They tended to develop stable nationally based parties, often oriented to the parliamentary structures which had also emerged at this time. This was true above all in Germany, where two socialist groups – those influenced by Marx and those influenced by the ideas of Lassalle – merged in the 1870s to form what became the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the most powerful socialist party in the world. The party participated from its inception in the new parliament created as a result of German unification.

Marx and Engels were extremely critical of the German socialists. The party’s unity programme, moved at the Gotha conference in 1875, was subject to a critique by Marx because it accepted a number of non-Marxist concepts, such as the idea that all other classes apart from the working class were “one reactionary mass”. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx argued that socialists should not dismiss all other classes as incapable of struggling against the system. [79] At various points in their lives Marx and Engels were prepared to ally with even bourgeois parties against reactionary feudalism, and very often with various petty bourgeois organisations and tendencies.

The “one reactionary mass” formulation came from the supporters of the socialist Lassalle, who despite his rhetoric against all other classes, had in practice favoured alliance with the Bismarckian monarchy against the bourgeois opposition.

Hal Draper has described how, for Marx and Engels, the petty bourgeoisie had to be viewed as capable of both reactionary and progressive political action. They considered that the programme of the German party would lead to sectarianism. Both the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry (the urban and rural sectors of the class) are “classes that are on the decline and reactionary in relation to the proletariat as soon as they aspire to maintain themselves artificially”, wrote Engels:

But they are not reactionary under all social conditions; not all sectors of the class are equally reactionary under the same conditions; different sectors and groups might vary widely on different issues; and last but not least, the difference must always be borne in mind between parties and groups based on this class and the possibilities of recruiting the rank and file of the class or of parts of it, in a fight against their own parties. In other words, we enter the realm of intelligent political leadership of a broad revolutionary movement that is striving to reach out, without compromising its own politics, as against the wooden drill of a self-pickling sect. [80]

The tendency to reformism, to accommodation with the German state, was apparent to Marx and Engels from the Gotha programme. However it is also clear that the theoretical level of the German party was low. In the early 1870s it attracted all sorts of people and the party did not always have a clear understanding of how to win them to revolutionary politics. Marx’s best known biographer, from the next generation of German socialists, Franz Mehring, has written of the party in the mid-1870s:

It was the rapid growth of its practical successes which made the new party indifferent to theory, and even that is saying too much. They were not indifferent to theory as such, but rather to what, in their vigorous advance, they regarded as theoretical hair-splitting. Unappreciated inventors and misunderstood reformers, anti-vaccinationists, nature healers and similar cranks flocked to the standards of the new party because they hoped to find in the active ranks of the working class the recognition which had been denied them in the bourgeois world. Whoever showed good-will and offered some remedy for the sick body politic was sure of a welcome, particularly those who came from academic circles and whose presence promised to seal the alliance between the proletariat and science. A university professor who befriended or seemed to befriend socialism in one or the other of its manifold interpretations, had no need to fear any very strict criticism of his intellectual stock in trade. [81]

Engels’ Anti-Dühring, a critique of the ideas of Dr Eugen Dühring, has to be seen against this background. He and Marx were extremely perturbed at the influence Dühring had on even the intellectuals of the party such as the young Eduard Bernstein. Anti-Dühring started as a series of articles in the German party’s publication Vorwärts in 1877. The articles came under attack from within the party itself. The tone of Engels’ articles and their content were regarded by some as “objectionable” and they were relegated to the paper’s scientific supplement. [82]

However, Engels persevered, and this polemic became central to turning the ideas of Marx into reality for a new generation of socialists who held Marx and Engels in great esteem but who knew little of their theoretical ideas. Although it was soon banned in Germany, a section of the book was published as a popular pamphlet, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, which was translated into various European languages and sold widely. It was and remains one of the best and most easily understood introductions to Marxist ideas.

Engels describes how the great Utopian socialists, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, derived their ideas from the rationalist thinking of the Enlightenment, which culminated in the great French Revolution. They expressed the disappointment felt at the political and social institutions which came out of the revolution. According to Engels, “Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason.” [83] He describes how this sort of socialism dominated the earliest socialist thinkers:

To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. [84]

Yet socialist thought had to move beyond moral outrage with capitalism and exhortations for change to an understanding of how that change could be brought about. Socialism became a science, according to Engels, with the development of the materialist conception of history and with the understanding that the basis of capitalist accumulation is the exploitation of workers:

The socialism of earlier days certainly criticised the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad.

With the ideas of Marx, “socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.” [85] A system which should have been able to make life easier for all of humanity instead made it far more wretched for many, while a minority benefited:

Machinery, the most powerful instrument for shortening labour time, becomes the most unfailing means for placing every moment of the labourer’s time and that of his family at the disposal of the capitalist ... the overwork of some becomes the preliminary condition for the idleness of others ... Accumulation of wealth at one pole is... accumulation of misery at the other pole. [86]

Moreover, the constant development of newer and more powerful machinery, which is central to the accumulation of capital, produces great wealth but leads eventually to crisis: “markets are glutted, products accumulate ... hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed, and the mass of workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence.” [87]

The only way out of this crisis is the socialisation of the means of production, a solution which, says Engels, even the capitalist system half recognises, with its increased attempts to regulate the free market by monopoly, nationalisation and state intervention. But genuine socialism can only come about when the working class seizes control of the means of production. [88]

The success of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific helped to establish Marx and Engels’ reputation among a new generation of socialists internationally. However, the political problems which Marx and Engels encountered in their dealings with the German party did not disappear. In 1879 the Anti-Socialist Law was passed by Bismarck in response to the growing strength of the party. In fact, the law did not harm the party’s growth, but its leaders responded to restrictions on their activity in the most compromising and mealy mouthed way. Its parliamentary group followed a policy of adaptation, and its leader, Wilhelm Liebknecht, declared in the Reichstag (parliament) that the SPD would obey the law. Marx said of the parliamentary group of socialists that “they are already so far affected by parliamentary idiotism that they think they are above criticism“. [89]

Engels in particular was angry with the leadership of the German party at the time. He felt attacked unjustifiably over Anti-Dühring and also believed that residual “Lassalleanism” kept showing through in the party’s politics. He considered that the advice that he and Marx had given was not readily accepted by the German party and that this often led it to opportunist and even reformist tendencies, as over the Anti-Socialist Law. Although a visit to London by August Bebel in 1880 helped allay his fears, the German party remained a source of worry to Engels for the rest of his life.

Lizzie Burns had died in 1878, and had become Engels’ wife on her deathbed. Three years later Marx’s wife, Jenny, also died, to be followed just over a year later by her eldest daughter, Jenny. Marx had long been in bad health, as his correspondence frequently testified, but these deaths had a terrible effect on him. His health deteriorated further, despite convalescent trips to Algeria and the Isle of Wight. He developed a tumour on the lung and died on 14 March 1883, just two months after his eldest daughter and a few days before his grandson, the four year old Harry Longuet, who is buried in Marx’s grave.

Engels was there at the time of death and wrote the next day to their old friend in America, Frederick Adolph Sorge, “Mankind is shorter by a head, and that the greatest head of our time.” [90] He spoke at Marx’s graveside where he stated that “just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” He went on to reaffirm their revolutionary commitment:

For Marx was above all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another; to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being ... Fighting was his element ... And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. [91]



After Marx

The void in Engels’ life following the death of Marx must have been great, but he was not the sort of person to allow it to prevent him from carrying on the work to which the two men had always devoted their energies. Therefore Engels’ final years – he was to live another 12 years after Marx – were as full and demanding as any in his younger life. His life in those years was devoted to arguing for, explaining and clarifying Marx’s ideas; working on the remaining volumes of Capital which would probably never have seen the light of day if it were not for Engels; looking after the Marx daughters, Laura and Eleanor; and advising those trying to build organisations in various countries, especially in Germany and Britain.

Engels’ theoretical production never diminished. Indeed in 1884 he published one of his best known books, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which drew on anthropological writings to trace the course of women’s oppression throughout class society. This was a pathbreaking book in more ways than one. Not only did it tie the development of family forms and structures to the rise of private property held by a particular class in society, it also demonstrated a completely egalitarian attitude towards women. Throughout his life Engels saw women’s oppression as an unnatural product of property relations which would disappear once those property relations disappeared. He therefore developed a view which set him well in advance of even liberal commentators in Victorian England, who all too often saw women as weak beings who had to be protected, rather than as equals. [92]

Much of volume II of Capital had been completed before Marx’s death, and Engels was able to write an introduction to it by 1885. He was only able to publish the final volume nearly ten years later, just before he died in 1895, and much of that had to be written from scratch. His task was made harder since much of the data on which it was based was ten or 15 years old.

The desire to finish Capital may be one reason that Engels stayed in England, rather than return to his native Germany or to German speaking Switzerland. He often stressed that he felt able to continue his theoretical studies better in London than in Germany or Switzerland. He was also much less directly involved in the workers’ movement in Britain than he would have been in Germany. Indeed, Engels was fairly isolated from the working class movement – in contrast to his youth when he was involved with the Chartists, the Communist League and later with the International. In part this reflected what had happened to the working class movement over the intervening two decades – although the passivity and lack of struggle among English workers began to change in the last years of Engels’ life.

He also had a number of strong personal commitments in England: to Helene Demuth, the lifelong friend and servant of the Marx family, and like them a committed socialist – she spent the last years of her life as housekeeper to Engels in Regent’s Park Road; to “Pumps” (Mary Ellen) Burns, niece of Mary and Lizzie, who with her husband and family was also ensconced there much of the time; and to the Marx daughters. Laura lived with her husband the French socialist Paul Lafargue in Paris, but Eleanor lived in London, in a relationship with the socialist Edward Aveling from 1883.

Engels treated them with the utmost affection and generosity, tact and sympathy, and smoothed many problems, such as Laura’s unhappiness that Eleanor, not she, was one of her father’s executors. Right up until his death, he provided them with money and left them both enough in his will to provide for them for the rest of their lives. Engels took all this as a matter of course, just as he had supported Marx throughout his life. He also defended them from attack – an impulse which he generously extended to Edward Aveling, who had a bad personal reputation but whom Engels always regarded as one of the most able socialists in Britain.



Rebirth of the English socialist movement

When Engels had first come to England in the early 1840s, his enthusiasm for the English working class movement knew no bounds. The Chartist movement was the most advanced in Europe. But the defeat of Chartism after 1848 and the ensuing dominance inside the working class movement of a layer of skilled trade union leaders led him to change his views. The experience of the First International reinforced these later views that the English working class movement – or at least its leaders – were narrow, parochial and all too willing to do deals with the bourgeois Liberal Party, rather than form their own independent workers’ party. So Engels could write to Eduard Bernstein in 1879:

The workers are divided politically into Conservatives and Liberal Radicals, into supporters of the Disraeli Cabinet and supporters of the Gladstone Cabinet. One can therefore speak of a labour movement only in so far as strikes take place here, which, whether they are won or not, do not get the movement one step further. [93]

He wrote in even more scathing vein to the German socialist Karl Kautsky:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, you see, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals ... [94]

Things began to change around the time of Marx’s death. Engels himself had started to write articles in the London Trades Council paper the Labour Standard in 1881, in which he called for the establishment of a workers’ political party rather than just trade union organisation – a call which led to his departure from the paper. [95] Soon afterwards came the establishment of tenuous socialist organisation in Britain. The Democratic Federation, led by H.M. Hyndman, was a coming together of various radical organisations. It developed in a socialist – as opposed to Liberal – direction. In 1884 it renamed itself the Social Democratic Federation, with a socialist programme and widespread support, especially among young trade unionists who were to become famous later in the decade for their role in leading strikes.

But the SDF soon split. Its departing members cited Hyndman’s opportunism coupled with his authoritarian behaviour – and set up the Socialist League in the beginning of 1885. The signatories to its founding statement included some of the best known names of English socialism such as Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, William Morris, Belfort Bax and John Lincoln Mahon. Their quarrel with Hyndman was understandable: he had irritated Marx with his frequent visits during the last years of his life, and irritated Engels as somebody who although he had read Capital did not grasp the essentials of Marxism. Neither had he broken fully from his own bourgeois background and ideas, in particular suffering from a degree of national chauvinism which coloured his socialism, and so was indeed capable of the opportunism of which he was accused. The SDF concentrated on abstract propaganda, did not see the relevance of strikes and was incapable of grasping many of the opportunities which came its way. Engels regarded it as a sect: “It has not understood how to take the lead of the working class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy.” [96] But the SDF did attempt to popularise Marx’s ideas, in however distorted a way, to a new generation of socialists. Hyndman’s book England for All was an attempt to put forward Marx’s ideas (although without crediting them).

The Socialist League, despite high hopes, did not really fare any better. Its reaction to opportunism was to stress abstract propaganda for socialism still further and just wait for the revolution. It was distrustful of “palliatives” which could in any way improve the condition of workers under capitalism. The League was therefore unable to combine its vision of socialism with a support for the day to day struggles which could enable it to win workers to its broader vision, unable to combine its theory with any practice. Those who did engage in activity found themselves doing so as individuals, not as part of a supportive organisation. So Eleanor Marx and Aveling were heavily involved in free speech and assembly activity in the East End of London from the mid-1880s, but increasingly felt estranged from the League and eventually left it. The League became more influenced by anarchism than Marxism.

A third group of socialists came into being in the mid-1880s: the Fabians. Unlike the other groups the Fabians exclusively attracted the educated middle classes, not workers. At first some of its members were sympathetic to left wing ideas, but the increasing class conflict in evidence in the second half of the 1880s, especially the unemployed riots in 1886 and the fighting in Trafalgar Square in 1887, led their leaders to move consciously away from any flirtation with revolutionary change and towards the theory of gradualism which eventually influenced the Labour Party.

Engels kept fairly aloof from these movements, although he was far from aloof from the activities which took place in these years. He did not play an active role himself, but worked closely with Eleanor and Aveling, and can be assumed to have agreed with the thrust of their politics in the various disputes which took place. He was sceptical about the fortunes of the early British socialists, as his comments in 1886 demonstrate:

Here the lack of any competition, on the one hand, and the government’s stupidity, on the other; have enabled the gentlemen of the Social Democratic Federation to occupy a position which they did not dare to dream of three months ago ... The labour movement is beginning here and no mistake, and if the SDF is the first to reap the harvest that is the result of the cowardice of the radicals and the stupidity of the Socialist League, which is squabbling with the anarchists and cannot get rid of them, and hence has no time to concern itself with the living movement that is taking place outside under its very nose. Incidentally, how long Hyndman and Co will persist in their present comparatively rational mode of action is uncertain. Anyhow I expect that they will soon commit colossal blunders again; they’re in too much of a hurry. [97]

Engels still had much more contact with socialists from abroad than from England, and his regular Sunday dinners were a gathering place for German socialists in London. [98] But he became increasingly enthusiastic about the class struggle in Britain as the decade came to an end. The movement of the New Unions began in 1888 and spread like wildfire for the next three years. It was a movement from below, led by the supposedly unorganisable: the women, the unskilled, the Irish. All had been excluded from the existing unions by the skilled craftsmen who dominated them. These union leaders were timid and conservative. In 1886 Tom Mann, a socialist engineer who went on to lead the dockers’ strike which was so central to the New Unionism, wrote this of the old unions:

None of the important societies have any policy other than that of endeavouring to keep wages from falling. The true unionist policy of aggression seems entirely lost sight of, in fact the average unionist of today is a man with a fossilised intellect, either hopelessly apathetic, or supporting a policy that plays directly into the hands of the capitalist exploiter... I take my share of the work of the trade union to which I belong; but I candidly confess that unless it shows more vigour at the present time, I shall be compelled to take the view – against my will – that to continue to spend time over the ordinary squabble-investigating, do-nothing policy will be an unjustifiable waste of one’s energies. I am sure there are thousands of others in my state of mind. [99]

The misery caused by economic depression, the increasing attacks by the police on demonstrators and campaigners for civil liberties in 1886 and 1887, the lack of any political or economic voice for the bulk of the working class suddenly exploded. The match girls’ strike at the Bryant and May factory in east London, following an exposé of their terrible conditions by the radical Annie Besant in the Link newspaper, was a terrible shock to respectable opinion, and was widely supported throughout the working class. The match girls won their demands.

The women’s strike was followed by that of the gas workers, led by Will Thorne (whom Eleanor Marx taught to read and write) and then by the London dockers’ strike for their “tanner” increase, led by the socialists John Burns and Tom Mann. Other strikes followed in all the sweated, unskilled trades – shops, transport, food industries. They also affected the unionised sections of the working class, who themselves became more militant.

The New Unionism was notable for a number of features: it started in the East End of London, the poorest and most politically backward slum in Britain; the strikes were frequently led by socialists who had agitated in the East End and elsewhere in small numbers in the years before struggle broke out; and the level of political generalisation was high. Engels made all these points in a letter sent to his old friend Sorge at the end of 1889:

The people are... drawing far greater masses into the struggle, shaking up society far more profoundly, and putting forward much more far reaching demands: the eight hour day, a general federation of all organisations and complete solidarity. Through Tussy [Eleanor Marx], the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union has got women’s branches for the first time. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands as only provisional, although they themselves do not yet know toward what final goal they are working. But this vague notion has a strong enough hold on them to make them elect as leaders only downright Socialists. [100]

The success of the agitation was shown in the mass May Day demonstration organised around the theme of the Eight Hour Day in 1890. Despite sectarian opposition from some of the old union leaders around the London Trades Council, hundreds of thousands went to Hyde Park – organised through a committee including the Avelings. Engels was on one of the speakers’ platforms and was full of enthusiasm for the event, which he saw as symbolising the reawakening of the working class. [101]

There were moves afoot for a political voice for labour, motivated especially by the Scottish socialist Keir Hardie. The Liberal Party had always been supposed to represent working people in parliament but when the great disputes of the New Unionism blew up, they were often in opposition to Liberal employers or their supporters: such were the owners of Bryant and May, the shipowners and the bosses of Manningham Mill who broke their workers’ strike in 1891. As the strike movement subsided and the employers’ offensive grew in the early 1890s, so the appeal of the Independent Labour Party grew. It was an appeal which Engels initially welcomed, because it was based on working people, it was oriented away from the sectarian squabbles of the old left and it seemed to have the chance to develop into a mass socialist party. However, it never really involved all the different socialist groupings, was racked with divisions and did fairly badly electorally in its early years. Most importantly, it was completely unclear theoretically and politically, rejecting Marxism and putting its emphasis on educating workers towards socialism rather than on struggle. By the mid-1890s the ILP became much closer to the gradualist Fabians:

Thus, when the great upsurge of the late ’eighties and early ’nineties began to die away, the old ideas of bourgeois Liberal reformism reasserted themselves in a form more suitable to the level which the movement, both political and industrial, had now reached. [102]



The final years

Engels was 70 years old in 1890. Eleanor Marx, writing on his 70th birthday for a Viennese socialist paper, said:

He carries his six foot odd so lightly ... and although Engels looks young he is even younger than he looks. He is really the youngest man I know. As far as I can remember he has not grown any older in the last 20 hard years. [103]

At the birthday celebration guests were “all regaled with claret and champagne until half past three in the morning, when twelve dozen oysters were consumed”. [104] Among the guests were the German socialists Liebknecht, Bebel and Singer. The international links between the socialists were growing by now, given a boost by the founding of the Second International, the first congress of which took place in Paris in 1889, on the hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Engels was instrumental in ensuring that the Congress took place. Before its very inception there was such division amongst the left that two international conferences were planned in Paris for the same time. His attempts to ensure that the Congress was an open public conference and that it was a means of launching a campaign for an eight hour day internationally were all important, and he worked very closely with Eleanor Marx, who was central to its organisation, although he did not attend himself.

The growth of socialist organisations, often under the influence of at least some form of Marxism, meant that Engels’ advice was much in demand. He became close friends with Victor Adler, a leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, who visited him in London, and also corresponded with socialists in countries as far apart as Russia and Portugal. The leaders of the emerging movement looked to him as the embodiment of a revolutionary tradition stretching back before 1848 – and as one of the last survivors of his generation.

A sign of this recognition came at the Zurich International Socialist conference in 1893. Yet again this was one of two conferences – the other called by the English trade unions in London, which Engels saw as a political challenge to the more advanced continental socialists. Engels managed to get the English conference cancelled by urging the German, Austrian and French trade unions to pass resolutions demanding one conference. Engels used the occasion to revisit Germany after many years and turned up only near the end of the Congress. He was feted by the international delegates and made the closing speech to the Congress. Engels’ lifelong modesty was evident here as elsewhere:

The unexpectedly magnificent welcome you have given me and which I could not but receive with deep emotion, I accept not in my personal capacity but as the collaborator of the great man whose portrait you have here. It is just 50 years ago that Marx and I came into the movement, when we wrote the first socialist articles for the Deutsche-Französiche Jahrbücher. From the small sects of the time, socialism has since developed into a powerful party making the officials of the whole world tremble. Marx has died, but were he still alive there would be no one in Europe and America who could look back upon his life’s work with such justifiable pride. [105]

But Engels found that despite the growth of these parties there was a danger within them – that their very success could hide theoretical and political problems. His concern was always that they should develop into proper mass workers’ parties, as opposed to the sects with no real roots in the class struggle which had so often dominated the left. He was therefore always extremely critical of anarchist tendencies, and took the side of the German party when it was faced with an anarchist splinter in the 1890s. But the stress that he put, quite rightly, on the need to work through the unions and parliament, the need to build up a mass base, could easily lead the German party to an opportunist accommodation with the system.

The arguments that broke out after Engels’ death in favour of “revisionism” – led by the theoretician Eduard Bernstein – had their seed in the years before. The idea that the system would simply expand without contradiction and would therefore yield up the fruits of socialism almost as a matter of course were there, in Engels’ view, in the revised programme put to the German party’s 1891 conference. Engels had always been very bitter about the suppression by Liebknecht of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. He was even more furious when that programme came to be revised after the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Law that no acknowledgement of past mistakes, or of Marx’s critique, was made by the party’s leaders.

He therefore took it upon himself to publish the Critique so that young comrades in Germany and elsewhere could see what Marxism was really supposed to mean in practice. In the process he attacked the tendencies towards opportunism in parts of the socialist press. His fears were well grounded since opportunism later became a dominant tendency inside the party. Even while Engels was still alive, his writing was subject to censorship by the party, when party leaders deleted references that he had written to the violent overthrow of society. [106]

In Engels’ final years he found no respite from the demands for theoretical clarification which had dominated his life. “In the last five years of his life Engels had some 135 works of greater or lesser importance to his credit.” He read seven daily papers (three German, two English, one Austrian and one Italian) and 19 weeklies in a variety of languages. [107] His most important work in these years was volume III of Capital which he wrote largely from scratch.

But he was also concerned to keep up with current debates and politics and to try to understand a very rapidly changing world. Sometimes he succeeded admirably. Engels was always very clear, for example, about the role that nationalisation played in the modern capitalist economy. He saw that state control of railways, the postal system and other means of communication was vital to the efficient accumulation of capital by the ruling class. He was scathing about those who equated such state control with some form of socialism. [108]

He also had a very good picture of the course and level of class struggle in a whole number of countries. But he was sometimes less accurate on changed conditions in other matters, particularly where he had taken a certain position in his youth. For example, he still thought that a defensive war by Germany against the Russian Empire might be necessary. In the 1840s Germany was an emerging nation which was fighting for unification and national identity. Russia was regarded as the most reactionary bastion of feudalism in Europe, which did its utmost to foster national divisions and to prevent revolution.

But the balance of forces changed after the Franco-Prussian War, when Germany became the fastest growing industrial and imperial power, gradually rivalling even Britain. Whereas German socialists would earlier have supported war against Russia, by the 1890s this meant siding with their own imperialist ruling class. Yet Engels still clung to the idea that in certain circumstances there could be a justified defensive war, for which German socialists would have to vote war credits. His argument was to be parroted with disastrous effect in 1914 by the same party leaders who censored Engels’ other writings when the German socialists supported their ruling class in the imperialist First World War and, indeed, voted them war credits. [109]

However, the fact that Engels said or wrote things that could later be turned against revolutionary socialists can in no way diminish his record as a revolutionary. His activity spanned a huge period from the Chartists through to the birth of the modern trade unions. He lived through some of the biggest changes in the development of capitalism, nowhere more so than in Germany. He left his imprint on the socialist movement in both Europe and America. Despite his desire to always take a back seat, he was a man of huge talents. He never became a mere commentator, or a fossilised armchair socialist but was always inspired and enthused by the activities of workers and the oppressed. His writings on a range of subjects demonstrate his tremendous knowledge and interest in science, the military and, perhaps most importantly, history. Engels’ historical writings show a real grasp of the subject and a style which makes them widely accessible.

He made his last public speech at the Zurich conference. He continued his activity and writing but became ill at the beginning of 1895, with cancer of the throat. He died on 5 August. Engels was cremated at a funeral attended by the leaders of the German, Austrian and French parties, by the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich and the English gas workers’ leader Will Thorne. His ashes were scattered in the sea six miles out from Eastbourne by Eleanor Marx. The attendance at his funeral shows how Engels was able to carry the spirit of the founders of revolutionary socialism and of the 1848 revolutions to the next generation of socialists.>




69. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, p.163.

70. ibid., p.168.

71. ibid., p.180.

72. ibid., p.209.

73. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Civil War in France in Selected Works, op. cit., p.306.

74. ibid., p.287.

75. ibid., p.285.

76. F. Engels introduction, ibid., p.259.

77. D. Fernbach introduction to K. Marx, The First International and After (London, 1974), p.43.

78. See the article by John Rees in this volume.

79. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, op. cit..

80. H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol.II (London, 1978), pp.308-309.

81. F. Mehring, Karl Marx (Sussex, 1981), p.511.

82. ibid., p.512.

83. F. Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific in Selected Works, op. cit., p.398.

84. ibid., p.404.

85. ibid., p.410.

86. ibid., pp.418-419.

87. ibid., p.419.

88. ibid., p.422.

89. Letter from K. Marx to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in Hoboken, 19 September 1879, in Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.309.

90. ibid., p.340.

91. Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx in Selected Works, op. cit., pp.429-430.

92. F. Engels, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State in Selected Works, op. cit., pp.449-583. For a fuller view of this and other works by Engels on human origins see the chapter by Chris Harman in this volume.

93. Letter from F. Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich, 17 June 1879, in Selected Works, op. cit., p.301.

94. Letter from F. Engels to Karl Kautsky in Vienna, 12 September 1882, in Selected Works, op. cit., p.678.

95. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, The British Labour Movement (London, 1979), pp.162-163.

96. H. Draper, op. cit., p.120.

97. Letter from Engels to J. Adolph Sorge in Hoboken in Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.375.

98. Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol.II (New York, 1976), pp.212-213.

99. Quoted in E. Hobsbawm, Labour’s Turning Point (Brighton, 1974), p.72.

100. Engels to Sorge in London, 7 December 1889, in Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.385.

101. Y. Kapp, Vol.II, op. cit., pp.377-380.

102. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, op. cit., p.204.

103. Y. Kapp, Vol.II, op. cit., p.423.

104. ibid., p.425.

105. ibid., p.549.

106. Engels’ introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France was abridged for publication in Die Neue Zeit. For details see chapter by John Rees in this volume. For the introduction see K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol.27 (London, 1990), pp.506-524.

107. Y. Kapp, op. cit., p.446.

108. See F. Engels Socialism, Utopian and Scientific in Selected Works, op. cit., pp.421-422.

109. C. Harman, Hidden Treasure, in Socialist Review 149 (London, January 1992), p.30-31. For a discussion on the argument about socialists and war see G. Mayer, op. cit., pp.285-295.


Last updated on 17.4.2004