Engels 200, his contribution to Political Economy

Michael Roberts

We want to thank professor Michael Roberts for allowing us to reproduce in this magazine the first chapter of his book, which it has been published the 1st November of 2020 and we kindly are inviting to explore deeply about this relevant and essencial book.

Link to buy the book:

Engels 200 by Michael Roberts

This short book has been written to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels, the close friend and collaborator with Karl Marx for over 40 years. This book is not a biography of Engels – there are plenty of those, of varying quality. Instead, it aims to outline, explain and analyse Engels’ contribution to a Marxist critique of political economy and capitalism. Engels’ economics has been sadly neglected, being lost under the large shadow of Marx’s Capital and his other economic works. And yet, Engels was the first to present a critique of the contemporary classical political economy of Smith, Ricardo and Malthus from a Marxist perspective – that is before Marx himself.

Engels first coined several concepts and categories of Marxist economic theory that are usually associated with Marx. But after realising that Marx had much more to contribute to an analysis of capitalism than he, Engels took a back seat. He did this for two main reasons. First, he was working for his father’s cotton manufacturing firm in Manchester for over 20 years (from about 1850), so he had little time to write anything substantial of his own, apart from helping Marx in writing articles under Marx’s name; providing criticism and information; and collaborating on political activity.

Second, because he was working and was indeed a junior partner in the firm, Engels received a sufficient income to live well, while also subsidising Marx and his family so that Marx could work (very slowly!) on his eco- nomics, leading eventually to the publication of Capital, his major work.

In a way, Engels lived a double life: a respectable bourgeois factory boss (not really, more a glorified clerk) associating with the Manchester cotton barons’ families in sport and social activity; and at the same time living with a working-class activist in various less salubrious residences, researching and writing his own works on a scientific explanation of the need to overthrow capitalism.

When Engels retired from his job in 1870, he moved down London to a house very close to the Marx family home to allow regular contact with his lifetime friend. And he resumed his own economic and political writings, making several important publications over the next decade or so before Marx’s death in 1883.

After Marx’s  death, Engels set himself the task of publishing the rest  of Marx’s work on Capital. Marx had originally envisaged that Capital would have up to ten volumes covering all aspects of capitalism. That was eventually shrunk down to three or four. But Marx had never proceeded to complete these further volumes, spending his time on editing Volume One in new editions, writing many other works and articles and participating in political activity. So it fell on Engels to turn a mountain of notes left by Marx into what were eventually Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital. They were published just before Engels’ death in 1895.

In those years after Marx’s death, Engels also added his own important contributions to Marxist political economy, including sensitive insights into the trends in late 19th century capitalism and prescient forecasts of its future. And he became, as he said himself, the main defender of Marxism within the mass labour movements developing at the time against all the other competing theories of socialism. In doing so, he provided a much more systematic popular explanation of Marxism or ‘scientific socialism’. Indeed, it could be said that because Engels was so convincing in his analyses that many people since have sought to claim that Engels distorted Marx’s ideas into his own simplistic, ‘determinist’ views.

This book will outline Engels’ important contributions to political economy and will show that it would be difficult to put a sheet of paper  between his economics and that of Marx. Moreover, even now, Engels’ critique of capitalism is still relevant and compelling. Indeed, this book should be seen as a companion to Marx 200, a book I wrote to coincide with Marx’s own 200th birthday anniversary in 2018. There are references to that book throughout this one. References to Engels’ works will be found in the bibliography. And the sources for all charts will also be found at the end of this book.

In the first chapter, I outline a brief biography of Engels, measuring his value to Marxian political economy. In chapter two, I look at Engels’ ground-breaking early critique of classical political economy, well before Marx. In chapter three, I consider the content of Engels’ major work of economic and social analysis of rising British capitalist production in the so-called industrial revolution and its impact on labour – in so doing proposing for the first time some laws of accumulation under capitalism that Marx took up and developed. In chapter four, I show how Engels was the first to consider the law of value as proposed by the classical bourgeois economists and to provide a Marxist critique. Chapter five will explain how after Marx’s death, Engels defended it against allcomers and expounded what Marx called ‘the most important law in political economy’, the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Chapter six looks at Engels’ contributions to the economic analysis of capitalism after Marx’s death, in particular on cycles of booms and slumps, imperialism and military spending and the transition to socialism. Chapter seven sums up his overall contribution to Marxian political economy 200 years since his birth.


The price of Engels

Half the price

In May 2018, at the time of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, an auction took place in Beijing. Up for sale was just one page of notes that Marx made for his seminal work, Capital. It included extracts and analyses that Marx made on British banker James William Gilbart’s book “Practical Treatise on Banking,” which he referenced when writing his piece “Capital: Critique of Political Economy.”

Chinese billionaire, Feng Lun jumped in to buy this original page of Marx’s illegible script in German for 3.34m yuan or $523,000. Such was the ‘value’ of Marx’s name and work in the eyes of a Chinese billionaire.

At the same auction, a manuscript by Marx’s long-standing friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels also came up for sale. It was an article that

Marx’s undecipherable script

Engels’ elegant writing

Engels wrote for the newspaper, Allgemeine Militärzeitung in November 1862. It was sold for exactly half the price of Marx’s script, 1.67 million yuan.

So Engels’ contribution to what he and Marx called ‘scientific socialism’ was exactly half that of Marx’s – at least according to prices in that auction. Was  that a fair measure? Well,  as Oscar Wilde once said: “If  a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, then a romantic must be a man who knows the value of everything but the price of nothing.” When it comes to Engels, I am a romantic. This short book will attempt to promote the contribution that Engels made to Marxist political economy and scientific socialism. Engels’ work in collaborating with Marx in philosophy, anthropology, journalism and revolutionary politics has been well documented by a host of authors. But the value of his work in political economy has been relatively neglected. And yet, in many ways Engels was ahead of Marx in developing Marxist economic theory, in observing and analysing important trends in capitalist economies and in developing revolutionary economic policies. In my view, being priced at half Marx’s contribution is much too low an estimate.

The young Engels

Engels was born on 28 November 1820 at Barmen-Elberfeld, a Prussian province of the Rhineland, which in 1930 was renamed Wuppertal as  a city in North Rhine-Westphalia. He was the eldest son of Friedrich Engels Sr. (1796–1860) and of Elisabeth “Elise” Franziska Mauritia von Haar (1797–1873). The wealthy Engels family owned large cotton-textile mills in Barmen and Salford, both expanding industrial metropoles. Friedrich’s parents were devout Pietist Protestants and they raised their children accordingly.

At the age of 13, Engels attended grammar school in the adjacent city of Elberfeld but had to leave at 17, due to pressure from his father, who wanted him to become a businessman and start to work as a mercantile apprentice in his firm. After a year in Barmen, the young Engels was in 1838 sent by his father to undertake an apprenticeship at a commercial house in Bremen. His parents expected that he would follow his father into a career in the family business.

The Engels family house at Barmen (now in Wuppertal), Germany

Engels at 19 years old

Whilst at Bremen, Engels began reading the philosophy of Hegel, whose teachings dominated German philosophy at that time. In September 1838, Engels published his first work, a poem entitled “The Bedouin”, in the Bremisches Conversationsblatt. He also engaged in other literary work and began writing newspaper articles critiquing the societal ills of industrialisation. He wrote under the pseudonym “Friedrich Oswald” to avoid connecting his family with his provocative writings.

In 1841, Engels performed his military service in the Prussian Army as a member of the Household Artillery. Assigned to Berlin, he attended university lectures at the University of Berlin and began to associate with groups of Young Hegelians. He anonymously published articles in the Rheinische Zeitung, exposing the poor employment and living conditions endured by factory workers. The editor of the Rheinische Zeitung was Karl Marx, but Engels would not meet Marx until late November 1842. Engels acknowledged the influence of German philosophy on his intellectual development throughout his career. He also wrote, “To get the most out of life you must be active, you must live and you must have the courage to taste the thrill of being young … ” (1840).

Engels the revolutionary

Engels developed atheistic beliefs and his relationship with his parents became strained. In 1842, his parents sent the 22-year-old Engels to Manchester, England, a manufacturing centre where industrialisation was on the rise. He was to work in Weaste in the offices of Ermen and Engels’ Victoria Mill, which made sewing threads. Engels’s father thought that working at the Manchester firm might make his son reconsider some of his radical opinions. On his way to Manchester, Engels visited the office of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne and met Karl Marx for the first time. They were not impressed with each other. Marx mistakenly thought that Engels was still associated with the Berliner Young Hegelians, with whom Marx had just broken off ties.

In Manchester, Engels met Mary Burns, a fierce young Irish woman with radical opinions who worked in the Engels factory. They began a relationship that lasted 20 years until her death in 1863. The two never married, as both were against the institution of marriage. While Engels regarded stable monogamy as a virtue, he considered the current state and church-regulated marriage as a form of class oppression.

Burns guided Engels through Manchester and Salford, showing him the worst districts for his research. While in Manchester between October and November 1843, Engels wrote his first economic work, entitled Outline of a Critique of Political Economy (Umrisse). Engels sent the work to Paris, where Marx published it in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher in 1844.

While observing the slums of Manchester in close detail, Engels took notes of its horrors, notably child labour, the despoiled environment, and overworked and impoverished labourers. He sent a trilogy of articles to Marx. These were published in the Rheinische Zeitung and then in the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, chronicling the conditions among the working class in Manchester.

He later collected these articles for his influential first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)- to be called The Condition for short in this book. In the book, Engels described the “grim future of capitalism and the industrial age”, noting the details of the squalor  in which the working people lived. The book was not published in English until 1887.

An early photograph of Engels, which has been asserted as showing him at age 20–25 (c. 1840–45)

Engels continued his involvement with radical journalism and politics. He frequented areas popular among members of the English labour and Chartist movements, whom he met. He also wrote for several journals, including The Northern Star, Robert Owen’s New Moral World and the Democratic Review.

Engels decided to return to Germany in 1844. On the way, he stopped in Paris to meet Marx. Marx had been living in Paris since late October 1843, after the Rheinische Zeitung was banned in March 1843 by Prussian governmental authorities. Prior to meeting Marx, Engels had become a fully developed materialist and ‘scientific socialist’, independently of Marx’s philosophical development.

In Paris, Marx was publishing the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher with Arnold Ruge. Engels met Marx for a second time at the Café de la Régence on the Place du Palais in August 1844. The two quickly became close friends and remained so their entire lives. Marx had read and was impressed by The Condition, in which he had written “A class which bears all the disadvantages of the social order without enjoying its advantages … Who can demand that such a class respect this social order?” It was Engels’s idea that the working class would lead the revolution against the bourgeoisie as society advanced toward socialism. Marx took this up as part of his own analysis.

Engels stayed in Paris to help Marx write The Holy Family, a critique of the Young Hegelians and the Bauer brothers, which was published in late February 1845. During this time in Paris, both Marx and Engels began their association with and then joined the secret revolutionary society called the League of the Just. The League of the Just had been formed in 1837 in France to promote an egalitarian society through the overthrow of the existing governments. In 1839, the League of the Just participated in the 1839 rebellion fomented by the French utopian revolutionary socialist, Louis Blanqui.

However, as Ruge remained a Young Hegelian in his belief, Marx and Ruge soon split and Ruge left the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. Nonetheless, Marx remained friendly enough with Ruge so that he sent Ruge a warning in January 1845 that the Paris police were going to arrest him, Marx and others at the journal, requiring all to leave Paris within 24 hours. Marx himself was expelled from Paris by French authorities in February 1845 and settled in Brussels with his wife and one daughter. Engels returned to his home in Barmen, Germany, to work on his Condition, which was published in late May. But even before, Engels had moved to Brussels in late April to collaborate with Marx on another book, German Ideology. While living in Barmen, Engels began making contact with socialists in the Rhineland to raise money for Marx’s publication efforts in Brussels. Marx and Engels began political organizing for the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany.

Belgium, founded only in 1830, was endowed with one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe and functioned as refuge for progressives from other countries. From 1845 to 1848, Engels and Marx lived in Brussels, spending much of their time organising the city’s German workers. Shortly after their arrival, they contacted and joined the underground German Communist League. The Communist League was the successor organisation to the old League of the Just which had recently disbanded. Influenced by Wilhelm Weitling, the Communist League was an international society of proletarian revolutionaries with branches in various European cities. Marx and Engels made many new important contacts through the Communist League. While most of the associates of Marx and Engels were German immigrants living in Brussels, some of their new associates were Belgians.

The Communist League commissioned Marx and Engels to write a pamphlet explaining the principles of communism. This became Manifesto of the Communist Party, better known as the Communist Manifesto. It was first published on 21 February 1848 and ends with the world-famous phrase: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win … Working Men of All Countries, Unite!”.

La Maison du Cygn (the Swan Tavern), Brussels, where the Communist Manifesto was written

There was a revolution in France in 1848 that soon spread to other  Western European countries. These events caused Engels and Marx   to return to their homeland of the Prussian Empire, specifically to the city of Cologne. While living in Cologne, they created and served as editors for a new daily newspaper called the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

In 1849 Engels travelled to the Kingdom of Bavaria for the Baden and Palatinate revolutionary uprising, an even more dangerous involvement. Starting with an article called “The Magyar Struggle”, written in January 1849, Engels, himself, began a series of reports on the Revolution and War for Independence of the newly founded Hungarian Republic.

However, during the June 1849 Prussian coup d’état the newspaper was suppressed. After the coup, Marx lost his Prussian citizenship, was deported, and fled to Paris and then London. Engels stayed in Prussia and took part in an armed uprising in South Germany as an aide-de-camp in the volunteer corps of August Willich. Engels also brought two cases of rifle cartridges with him when he went to join the uprising in Elberfeld in May 1849. When the uprising was crushed, Engels was one of the last members of Willich’s volunteers to escape by crossing the Swiss border. Because of these military adventures, Marx’s family in later years would call Engels ‘the General’.

Engels travelled through Switzerland as a refugee and eventually made it to safety in England. On 6 June 1849 Prussian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Engels which contained a physical description as “height: 5 feet 6 inches; hair: blond; forehead: smooth; eyebrows: blond; eyes: blue; nose and mouth: well proportioned; beard: reddish; chin: oval; face: oval; complexion: healthy; figure: slender. Special charac- teristics: speaks very rapidly and is short-sighted.” Once he was safe in Switzerland, Engels began to write down all his memories of the recent military campaign against the Prussians. This writing eventually became the article published under the name “The Campaign for the German Imperial Constitution”.

Engels’ family cotton mill in Salford, Manchester

Engels in Manchester

To help Marx with the new publishing effort in London, Engels sought ways to escape the continent and travel to London. He eventually arrived in November 1849. Once Engels made it to Britain, he decided to re-enter the Manchester company in which his father held shares, in order to be able to support Marx financially, so that Marx could work on Capital.

Engels didn’t like his work in Manchester but did it for the good of the cause. Unlike his first period in England, Engels was now under police surveillance. He had “official” homes and “unofficial homes” all over Salford and other inner-city Manchester districts where he lived with Mary Burns under false names to confuse the police.

Despite his work at the mill, Engels found time to write a book on Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation and the 1525 revolutionary war of the peasants, entitled The Peasant War in Germany. Engels also wrote a number of newspaper articles including “The Campaign for the German Imperial Constitution” which he finished in February 1850, and “On the Slogan of the Abolition of the State and the German ‘Friends of Anarchy’” written in October 1850. In April 1851, he wrote the pamphlet “Conditions and Prospects of a War of the Holy Alliance against France”.

Marx and Engels denounced French leader Louis Bonaparte when, in December 1851, he carried out a coup against the French government and made himself president for life. In condemning this action, Engels wrote to Marx, characterising the coup as occurring on “the 18th Brumaire”, the date of Napoleon I’s coup of 1799, according to the French Republican Calendar. Marx was later to incorporate this ironic characterisation of Louis Bonaparte’s coup into his essay about the coup, calling the essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte again using Engels’s suggested characterisation. Marx also borrowed Engels’ characterisation of Hegel’s notion that history occurred twice, “once as a tragedy and secondly as a farce” in the first paragraph of his new essay.

Engels’s house in Primrose Hill, London

In July 1851, Friedrich Engels’s father arrived to visit him in Manchester. During the visit his father arranged for Friedrich to meet Peter Ermen who was to take over sole management of the office in Manchester. Engels started working as an office clerk, the same position he held in his teens while in Germany where his father’s company was based. However, Friedrich worked his way up to become a partner of the firm by 1864. Five years later, Engels retired from the business and could focus more on his studies. During this time, Marx was living in London, but they were able to exchange ideas through daily correspondence.

Engels retires to London

In 1870, Engels moved to London where he and Marx lived until Marx’s death in 1883. Engels’ London home from 1870–1894 was at 122 Regent’s Park Road. In October 1894 he moved to 41 Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill, where he died the following year.

Mary Burns suddenly died of a heart disease in 1863, after which Engels became close with her younger sister Lydia (“Lizzie”). They lived openly as a couple in London and married in September 1878, hours before Lizzie’s death.

After Marx’s death, Engels devoted much of his remaining years to editing Marx’s unfinished volumes of Capital, he also contributed significantly in other areas, including economics, as we shall see in the following chapters. Engels also made an argument using the anthropological evidence of the time to show that family structures changed over history, and that the concept of monogamous marriage came from the necessity within class society for men to control women to ensure their own children would inherit their property. He argued a future communist society would allow people to make decisions about their relationships free of economic constraints. One of the best examples  of Engels’ thoughts on these issues are in his work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels died of throat cancer (smoking?) in London on 5 August 1895, at the age of 74. Following cremation at Woking Crematorium, his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head, near Eastbourne as he had requested, with Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Edouard Bernstein in attendance.

Engels in his mature years

The value of Engels

What value did Engels contribute to Marxian political economy? Marx himself gave us an evaluation. In Marx’s 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx said: “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…arrived by another road (compare his Condition of the Working-Class in England) at the same result as I, and when in the  spring of 1845 he too came to live in Brussels, we decided to set forth together our conception as opposed to the ideological one of German philosophy, in fact to settle accounts with our former philosophical conscience”. A year later, Marx reaffirmed and indeed strengthened this claim in a letter in which he insisted that Engels “must” be considered “my alter ego.”

As to Engels’ intellectual abilities, Marx wrote in 1853 that “being a veritable walking encyclopaedia,” Engels is “capable, drunk or sober, of working at any hour of the day or night, [he] is a fast writer and devilish quick in the uptake.” However, Engels always recognised that Marx was at the heart of Marxism, or historical materialism.

A year after Marx’s death he claimed to have been merely “second fiddle” to Marx: “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. And I was happy to have so splendid a first fiddle as Marx. But now that I am suddenly expected to take Marx’s place in matters of theory and play first fiddle, there will inevitably be blunders and no one is more aware of that than I. And not until the times get somewhat more turbulent shall we really be aware of what we have lost in Marx. Not one of us possesses the breadth of vision that enabled him, at the very moment when rapid action was called for, invariably to hit upon the right solution and at once get to the heart of the matter. In more peaceful times it could happen that events proved me right and him wrong, but at a revolutionary juncture his judgement was virtually infallible.”

Four years later in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels elaborated on this modest appreciation of his own contribution in print:

“Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my forty years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundations of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belongs to Marx. What I contributed—at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields—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. It therefore rightly bears his name.”

On his death, Engels left a considerable estate, valued for probate at £25,265 equivalent to around £3 million in 2019. That’s wealthy by most standards, but just one-tenth of what John Maynard Keynes left on his death. Keynes may have been worth more in money, but not in value.

Yet as biographer Gareth Stedman Jones has pointed out, Engels also made important original contributions to Marxism.

“a number of basic and enduring Marxist propositions first surface in Engels’ rather than Marx’s early writings: the shifting focus from competition to production; the revolutionary novelty of modern industry marked by its crises of overproduction and its constant reproduction of a reserve army of labour; the embryo at least of the argument that the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers and that communism represents, not a philosophical principle, but `the real movement which abolishes the present state of things; the historical delineation of the formation of the proletariat into a class; the differentiation between “proletarian socialism” and small-master or lower-middle-class radicalism; and the characterisation of the state as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling propertied class.”

In his last years

As for Marxian political economy, this book will show that Engels made even more contributions. The exchange value in an auction of Engels’ works may be 50% of Marx’s, but the use value of Engels’ contribution is much higher than that.

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