Friedrich Engels – Marx’s alter ego

Published on Business Standard, October 10, 2009.

… In a celebrated passage in The Communist Manifesto (1848), they had warned of a fundamental change in human affairs with the process of globalisation underway:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeois over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish relations everywhere. The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country… It compels all countries, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

With the global financial crisis, the Manifesto and Das Kapital that together describe the relentless, all-consuming nature of capitalism have had another lease of life in the bestseller lists the world over. But in all these turnings, Marx took centre stage and Engels, a philosopher of perhaps equal importance, kept in the shadows: this imbalance has been corrected to an extent by Tristram Hunt’s The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels …  

… Marx and Engels became friends in Paris in 1844, when both were in their mid-20s, and remained very close until Marx died in 1883. Both came from Rhineland but from very different backgrounds: Marx’s father was a middle class lawyer while Engels’ was a prosperous cotton mill owner.

By 1845 he had become a successful capitalist, which provoked him to write his first anti-capitalist work—The Condition of the Working Class in England—which described in detail the inhumanity of modern methods of production. While Engels did not contribute distinctly to a Marxist conception of history, his work on political economy and on the relationship between industrial revolution and development of class consciousness contributed vital elements to Marx’s overall synthesis. Moreover, Engels contributed substantially to their unfinished joint work, setting out the new conception—The German Ideology.

The period between 1845 and 1850 was one of extremely close collaboration. Engels broke off relations with his father and devoted himself full-time to political work with Marx in Brussels and Paris. Engels collaborated intensively with Marx, contributing many ideas, practical examples from business with detailed editorial attention in the making of the first volume of Das Kapital. But more importantly, he provided Marx and his family with the money that he needed for his path-breaking work, without which it would never have been done. (This generosity continued to be extended to Marx’s family and his hangers-on after he died.) Engels also tied up all the loose ends of volumes II and III that Marx had left unfinished. Some critics have felt that Engels shouldn’t have attempted to fill in his master’s voice because it has led to much controversy among 20th century Marxists. But when you consider that Engels filled in so many of Marx’s ideas, it doesn’t really matter if there are some imprecise translations in the later volumes.

Marx has been praised for his prescience about globalisation and his theory of history (especially the passage quoted above), but many of his ideas were first put forward by Engels. Any reader in Marxist philosophy, which includes key papers by leading Marxists, will reveal the extent to which Engels contributed to the subject. Tristram Hunt’s biography redresses the imbalance to a great extent. (full text).

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