karl marx's friend friedrich engels -- 12/14/15

Today's selection -- from Karl Marx by Jonathan Sperber. Though the son of a prosperous businessman, Friedrich Engels turned to communism in his early twenties after seeing the misery of factory workers in Germany and England. His collaboration with Karl Marx became pivotal in the burgeoning European communist movement:

"Born in 1820 in the city of Barmen in the Wupper Valley about thirty-five miles to the east of Cologne, across the Rhine River, [Friedrich Engels, Jr.] was the son of Friedrich Engels, Sr., a prominent textile manufacturer in a region that was a central European pioneer of industrialization. Then as today, the Wupper Valley was home to several varieties of particularly intense Protestantism, and Engels's father was a prominent lay proponent of the Awak­ening, the German version of revivalism, directed against both the Enlightened, rationalist religion Marx was taught and also the Calvin­ist orthodoxy prevalent in the area. Sent as a young man, after his years at the Gymnasium, to be a commercial apprentice in the North German port city of Bremen, Engels had a crisis of faith, intensified by reading the works of the Young Hegelians. The many notes he took on David Friedrich Strauss's Life of Jesus, complete with sarcastic observations about biblical literalism and German revivalists, have been preserved and testify to his movement from piety to non-belief. In contrast to Marx, for whom the transition from a rationalist, Enlightened religion to Young Hegelian atheism may have been intellectually stormy but was personally smooth, for Engels it meant a painful break with his family background, especially his father.

"Engels did his military service in [the Prussian army] in 1842, as an officer candidate in the artil­lery, stationed in Berlin. Being a soldier agreed with him, and he was a lifelong armchair strategist. In later years, his nickname in Marx's circle would be 'The General.' While in Berlin, Engels was a regular member of the Free Men, and wrote several pieces for the Rhineland News, continuing the practice of occasional freelance journalism that he had begun while living in Bremen. After the end of his one-year army service, he returned to the Wupper Valley and, on a visit to Cologne, met Moses Hess, who convinced him of the virtues of communism.

"Engels's father sent him to England for further commercial train­ing with the family's business partners in Manchester, and also to keep him away from his subversive and atheistic German friends. The paternal plan backfired badly: the stay in Manchester only reinforced the young Engels's radical and communist sympathies. Manchester was, as contemporaries said, 'Cottonopolis,' the global symbol and global center of the industrial revolution. As many people lived in this English provincial manufacturing town as in the Prussian capital, but in place of Berlin's intellectual and cultural attractions -- the royal pal­ace, the university and Academy of Sciences, the Opera House and the Singakademie -- Manchester featured hundreds of steam-powered tex­tile mills, whose emissions blanketed the city in a dense cloud of smoke and coal dust.

"This vast manufacturing establishment generated enor­mous amounts of wealth, but also massive misery. The contrast between the suburban villas of the manufacturers, bankers, and cotton whole­salers and the factory workers' slum neighborhoods -- narrow streets, filthy, permeated with raw sewage, and shrouded in a perpetual gloom of pollution -- made it clear just which groups received the wealth and which the misery. Manchester was as much the city of working-class struggle as of working-class suffering, where the English radicals, the Chartists, denounced the plutocratic government and demanded uni­versal manhood suffrage. Trade unionists strove, in everyday effort, to improve wages and working conditions; socialists proposed sweeping changes to all of society. A year before Engels's arrival, in the Plug Riots -- a combination general strike, insurrection, and outburst of rage at working-class existence -- the city's factory proletariat had risen up and only been suppressed with a large deployment of armed force.

"Associating after business hours with the city's many political oppo­nents of the existing order, Engels also found an informal entree into working-class life through his mistress and future companion, an Irish immigrant named Mary Burns, a factory worker and domestic ser­vant. He decided to write a book about his experiences, emphasizing the contrast between rich and poor, outlining the misery and exploita­tion of the industrial workers who produced the capitalists' wealth: The Condition of the Working Class in England (published in German in 1845). While in Manchester, Engels continued to send in pieces to the Rhineland News). As a result of this connection, he wrote an article on political economy for the Franco-German Yearbooks. On his way home from Manchester, he stopped in Paris to [make a new acquaintance, Karl Marx] the editor of the news­paper and magazine that had published his writing."


Jonathan Sperber


Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Sperber


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