Engels comes of age: the socialist who wanted a joyous life for everyone

Two centuries after his birth, Karl Marx’s ‘second fiddle’ is at last being recognised as the visionary he was, writes his biographer

While most radical artists have spent the last few years demanding that statues of imperial heroes be pulled down, in Manchester they have gone the other way. In 2017, the film-maker Phil Collins transported a statue of Friedrich Engels on a flat-bed truck from eastern Ukraine, a former colony of the Soviet empire, to the heart of the “northern powerhouse”.

It was a superb, counter-intuitive gesture: placing the man who hated “Cottonopolis” in the heart of its commercial nexus. For with the exception of a polite blue plaque in north London’s Primrose Hill and a sign that once stood on Eastbourne beach (where his ashes were scattered), the statue is one of the hopelessly few reminders we have of one of Britain’s greatest emigres.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Rhinelander turned reluctant Mancunian turned old Londoner.

Always happy to play “second fiddle to so splendid a first violin” as Karl Marx (“How can anyone be envious of genius; it’s something so very special that we, who have not got it, know it to be unattainable right from the start?”), he deserves so much more than just being cast as history’s supporting man.

Not only was he instrumental in shaping 20th-century Marxism, but his own vision of socialism feels more relevant to our contemporary concerns than does the pure political economy of Karl Marx.

Born on 28 November 1820 in Barmen, along the Wupper Valley, in Prussia, Engels grew up as the scion of a strictly Calvinist, capitalist, and suffocatingly bourgeois family of textile merchants. His was a loving childhood of plentiful siblings, family wealth and communal cohesion in what was termed “the German Manchester”. But from an early age Engels found the human costs of his family’s prosperity hard to bear. Aged only 19, he wrote of the plight of factory workers “in low rooms where people breathe in more coal fumes and dust than oxygen”, and lamented the creation of “totally demoralised people, with no fixed abode or definite employment”.

Friedrich Engels, 1879.
Friedrich Engels, 1879. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

After falling under the spell of the Young Hegelians at Berlin University it was 1840s Manchester that turned him towards socialism. Sent to work at the family mill in Salford in the epicentre of the industrial revolution, he saw how unregulated capitalism entailed sustained dehumanisation: “Women made unfit for childbearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations wrecked, afflicted with disease and infirmity, purely to fill the purses of the bourgeoisie,” as he put it in his masterwork, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845).

What Engels also brilliantly revealed in this book was how urban planning and regeneration were arenas for class conflict. He is the father of modern urban sociology, explaining in ways in which we are only now familiar how city space is always socially and economically constructed. Today’s commentators on the privatisation of public space or Mike Davis’s work on our Planet of Slums all exist in the shadow of Engels’ pioneering critique of industrial Manchester.

After the failure of the 1848 continental revolutions, Engels was forced to return to Manchester as a cotton lord in order to fund Marx’s philosophy. He hated it. “Huckstering is too beastly, most beastly of all is the fact of being not only a bourgeois … but one who actively takes sides against the proletariat.”

That painful personal sacrifice ensured the publication of Das Kapital in 1867 and, with it, the summation of the Marxian world view. Unfortunately, Marx’s life work soon looked in danger of falling victim to “the bourgeois conspiracy of silence”, until Engels started organising much-needed publicity. It was Engels’s popularisation of Marx’s central insights in his pamphlets Anti-Dühring and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, that launched Marxism as a compelling global creed.

“Most people are too lazy to read stout tomes like Das Kapital,” Engels explained, as his own easily intelligible guides to Marxism garnered readers across France, Germany, America, Italy and Russia.

After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels enjoyed the freedom of expanding Marx’s thinking in new directions. In his study of the history of family life, Engels laid the foundations for socialist feminism with his connection of capitalist exploitation to gender inequality.

Similarly, Engels pioneered the Marxist vision of colonial liberation with his early analysis of imperialism as a core component of Western capitalism. From Vietnam to Ethiopia, China to Venezuela, Engels’s theory of emancipation was adopted by anti-imperial freedom fighters, even as the Soviet empire deployed him to expand across eastern Europe.

The Marx Engels monument, Karl Liebknecht Street,  Berlin.
The Marx Engels monument, Karl Liebknecht Street, Berlin. Photograph: Bildagentur/Getty

Engels was a figure of profound historical and philosophical significance. Yet what I discovered, as his biographer, was that his vision of socialism could also be richly uplifting: the grisly, corrupt, anti-intellectual egalitarian Marxism of the 20th century would have horrified him. “The concept of a socialist society as a realm of equality is a one-sided French concept,” he said. Instead, Engels believed in cascading the pleasures of life – food, sex, drink, culture, travel, even fox-hunting – across all classes. Socialism should not be a never-ending Labour party meeting, but a life of enjoyment. The real challenge of living in Manchester was that he could find no “single opportunity to make use of my acknowledged gift for mixing a lobster salad”.

It is entirely appropriate then that his statue now commands Tony Wilson Place, named in honour of the fast-living co-founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub, who also believed in the good things in life. Finally, 200 years after his birth, and a long way from his birthplace, we have a proper memory of Engels in his rightful place.


Tristram Hunt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A century on, whatever happened to Labour's firebrand lost leader?
Victor Grayson was briefly the most famous socialist in Edwardian England. But in 1920 he disappeared. His fate remains one of the most compelling mysteries in British political history

Julian Coman

10, May, 2020 @7:38 AM

Article image
Time to face the brutal truth: there’s no glamour at the bottom of a glass
Alcohol addiction has long been romanticised in films, TV shows, books and adverts. Let’s look at the destructive drudgery and sheer sorrow of the disease instead

Louisa Young

04, Jul, 2021 @6:45 AM

Article image
Jackie Collins: the reality of life in Joan’s shadow
The bestselling author cultivated a confident image. But it belied a personal life dogged by self-doubt, as a new documentary reveals

Vanessa Thorpe

13, Jun, 2021 @11:59 AM

Portrait memorial to Hacienda's Wilson
Tony Wilson, the music impresario and broadcaster who died earlier this year, will be remembered this week with the display of a photographic portrait from his days reigning over the 1980s Manchester music scene

Vanessa Thorpe

02, Dec, 2007 @1:30 AM

Article image
Are Britain's bands overexposed in a YouTube universe?
Wu Lyf among growing number of UK rock acts unable to bear intense pressure of social media scrutiny

Luke Bainbridge

02, Dec, 2012 @12:54 AM

Article image
From stand-in stars to tech titans: The Observer’s faces to watch in 2022
We look at who will be making headlines this year, in both a positive and negative light

Toby Helm, Robin McKie, Vanessa Thorpe, Simon Tisdall, Barry Glendenning, Suzanne Wrack, Priya Elan, Ian Tucker, Wendy Ide and Barbara Ellen

02, Jan, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Beyond the Salt Path: ‘It felt abnormal to live in a village, with other people’
Her book about finding happiness on the road was a huge hit. Here author Raynor Winn explains how the real challenge was what to do next

Sarah Hughes

23, Aug, 2020 @6:46 AM

Article image
El Alamein, Dresden and a cold war spy: the incredible life of Victor Gregg
A celebration of the achievements of the Britain’s oldest para veteran, who died last week aged 101

Rick Stroud

17, Oct, 2021 @6:15 AM

Article image
The day before 9/11: what was life like before the world changed?
The age of Big Brother and famous football victories seems like another time. But did the terrorists’ planes, as it seemed, really come out of nowhere?

Tim Adams

05, Sep, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Secret sacrifice: the agents who risked all behind Nazi lines
The men and women of the Special Operations Executive who lost their lives in occupied Europe are winning recognition on TV, in books and commemorative events

Gareth Rubin

31, May, 2020 @7:00 AM