[Engels At 200] Remembering Friedrich Engels: The Condition Of Working Class Today And Our Tasks Ahead

Shekhar //


Most of us will agree that Marx and Engels, though they were separate individuals, together form a single entity and are in no way separable sofar as the purpose and the entire course of their life (after maturity) and work are concerned. They together formed a unique personality and made a genius.

Like any other genius, Marx and Engels, too, were the product of his time. The genius in them didn’t sprout forth from vacuum, but from real premises i.e. on the basis of a definite social milieu. They were the product of the sum total of definite social conditions that existed right before them. To be precise, they created new things but only on the basis of what were already accomplished before him, and in other words, on the basis of the sum total of the social stuff handed down to them history. It is therefore necessary to discern the social conditions and surroundings in which Engels and Marx both grew and developed to truly appreciate the historical significance of their life and work. One must go through their life minutely that will enlighten us that they could be what the antedating achievements, the degree of intellectual development of society and other social forms of their time destined them to be, of course based on the strength to their personal capabilities and abilities.

Personal Life Of Engels

Engels was born in Barmen in the northern Rhine province, then the centre of the cotton and wool industries. Ethnically, he was of German extraction and belonged to a well-to-do wealthy industrialist-cum-merchant family that had a respectable place in German society, particularly in the Rhine province. The prominent place his family occupied in Germany can be judged by the fact that his origin could be easily traced back to the Sixteenth Century, whereas Marx’s family history who belonged to Jew’s extraction could not be known beyond his father. It is difficult to know who his grandfather was.

Engels’ family, particularly father, belonged to protestant creed and it had immensely contributed to his own early materialist bent of mind, for his father like the old Calvinist had this profound religious faith that ‘the business of man on this earth is the acquisition and hoarding of wealth through industry and commerce’, even though in day-to-day life he was fanatically religious. But very soon the ideas of Engels’ father started clashing bitterly with that of his own, particularly because his father wanted to make him a merchant and an industrialist just like him.

Initially, the father prevailed over the son. At an early age of seventeen, he was sent to Bremen, one of the biggest commercial cities in Germany at that time to serve in a business office where worked for three years.

We can come to know about his uneasiness with this profession from a few of his letters that he wrote in those days to some of his school friends. We can easily deduce that though he entered the business on the insistence of his father and also proved his ability to be a successful businessman, he always tried to free himself of its ill effects as well as get liberated from this profession, though till then he hadn’t become a communist or a dialectical materialist.

He soon fell under the sway of Heine and Borne, the two thorough going democrat Jews. As a result, at the age of nineteen, he became a prolific writer and sallied forth as an apostle of a freedom-loving democratic Germany. ventured off an unbeaten path democratic Germany. By now, while he was involved in business in Bremen, he had completely freed himself of all religious prepossessions and under the sway of the effects of the French Revolution developed into an old French Jacobin.

In about 1841, at the age of twenty, Engels joined the Artillery Guards of Berlin as a volunteer where he fell in with the circle of the Young Hegelians to which Marx also belonged. He along with Marx became the extreme left wing of the Hegelian philosophy.

A remarkable thing about Engels is that while Marx was still engrossed in his studies and was preparing himself for a University career in 1842, Engels had begun to write as an established writer since 1839 itself and had also attained a visible place in literature under a pseudonym ‘Oswald’. Not only this, he had become involved in the heated ideological discussion which were being conducted and carried on by/between the disciples of the old and the new philosophical systems.

In 1842, Engels had written a trenchant criticism of the Philosophy of Revelation written by the well-known Hegel’s adversary, Friedrich Schelling. Many however ascribed it for long to Bakunin. Only after a long time this error was discovered and set right. It is said that such a confusion arose due to similarity of style, subject and the theme of the theoretical proofs which were similar to Bakunin’s.  Thus, at the age of twenty-two, Engels became an accomplished writer, independently of Marx, with profound democratic clarity, credentials and ultra-radical tendencies.

He also wrote a few poems in those earlier days of this life. In many of his poems, he depicted himself like a fiery Jacobin that shows his ultra-democratic tendencies bore deep impressions and influence of the great French Revolution.

Though still engaged in doctorate studies till late 1841, Marx was also in about the same mental state. Later in 1842 they both finally met and got united forever in pursuance of one single common cause.

Socio-Economic And Political Conditions Prior To Marx And Engels

Engels and Marx both were born almost at the same, in the same province and in the same country. To both came the impact and influence of the anti-feudal anti-despotic revolutionary events of the thirties. In July 1830, France went through a revolution that swept Europe from West to East reaching up to Poland causing insurrection there also in 1831. It also had affected Russia.

But it must be understood that the July Revolution of France itself was only a culmination of a series of another revolutionary upheavals, the ones that were characterised by two revolutions that occurred in Europe in eighteenth century; Firstly, the Industrial Revolution in England that approximately began in 1760, reached its zenith roughly towards the end of eighteenth century and continued for quite long till 1830; Secondly,the Great French Revolution that shook the whole of Europe.

A Brief Account Of Industrial Revolution And Its Effects

As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the Handicraft system in England, the initial chief characteristic of English Capitalism, was gradually replaced by and evolved into the manufacturing stage in the second half of the eighteenth century. With this, a high degree of division of labour with its known consequences and the resulting break-up of the process of production into a variety of partial operations and processes soon took a long way forward. Old implements were replaced by Machines, first in Textile industry and then in all other Industries. In 1785, Watt’s Steam-Engine was invented that ended the compulsion and constraint of keeping the location of the industries near rivers. Water power was replaced by steam power and it changed a whole lot of things. The overall impact was that it created favourable conditions for concentration of production, and later centralization of capital. The old craftsmen either became proletarians or were just thrown away. Continuous technical base of industries due to new and newer inventions or innovations continuously for 70 years i.e. from 1760 to 1830 which is known as the period of Industrial Revolution, led to ruin and annihilation of petty handicraft production and gave rise to and a solid start to large scale production.

What is more important about its consequences is that in place of the old class of workers constituting just a negligible portion of the population of England, in these years there appeared a working class comprising a considerable portion of the population. This had a great impact. Now the working class had begun to put a definite imprint on all contemporary events or upheavals.

Apart from this, the old (habitual) mode of life of the old working class also changed almost completely. It was superseded or taken over by completely new, unseen or unheard conditions marked by this fact that those new conditions were governed by Machines. The workers, the erstwhile craftsmen, were now forced to face a new cruelty unleashed by these new conditions that marked the painful difference between yesterday and today. On the one hand, the machines rendered most of them redundant, useless and unemployed, while, on the other hand, the resultant division of labour gradually made the mere appendage of those machines. Machines became their masters and started regulating them and their life.

In response, the workers rebelled with hatred and indignation against Machines and tried to get rid of those Machines as the machines personified all their misfortunes. This gave rise to a movement called Luddite movement. It attained new high in 1815 and spread in all workers’ centres. The capitalists and their government let loose the most cruel repressions against them with imposing death penalty, if they destroyed a machine or tried to disturb the functioning of the machines.

It called for a new task of enlightening the workers. Some conscious workers and a few pro-worker intellectuals took up the task of informing the workers that the fault didn’t lie with the machines, but with the capitalists and the new social relations that they had built which used these machines against the workers under a particular social condition.

Such a consciousness was just emerging in England in those days. It was further invigorated by the wide-ranging socio-political effects of French Revolution.

A Brief Account Of French Revolution And Its Impacts

French Revolutionbegan in 1789 and reached its climax in 1792-93 but its onward march fast came to an end just after this. since 1793-94, its force and shine both had begun to fade and recede. This led to the rise of Napoleon and his military dictatorship in 1799. He ruled over France up to 1815.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, France was ruled by a monarch, an absolute monarch, but actual power was in the hands of the nobility and the clergy. General mass of people was suffering in a big way as no privilege or concession was assigned for them by the nobility or the monarch. The struggle between the two – the city poor and the privileged classes – finally led to the fall of power of the Bastille. The State Power fell in the hands of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie as well as the revolutionary Paris workers led by Jacobins on August 10, 1792 and the rule of Jacobins headed by Robespierre, Marat and Danton was established, however the vanguard was however the revolutionary detachment of Parisian workers whose pressure led the Revolution to swiftly purge France of the feudal regime along with its all its remnants creating conditions for establishment of complete political freedom. One can judge the situation from their revolutionary propaganda that consisted of slogans like “War to the palace, peace to the cottage.” On their banners was inscribed the slogan: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

It led to great Impacts all over Europe in terms of pushing forward the working class, its basic demands of democracy and other livelihood issues. It also helped to push ahead the working-class orientation in then ongoing intellectual discourse and later it helped to produce their leaders and ideologues.

In Germany, Jacobin societies were formed in Rhine Province, the home province of Marx and Engels. Young Germans joined in large numbers in French Revolutionary Army as volunteers and took part in revolutionary detachments and associations of Parisian workers.

Impact also grew even further East, up to St. Petersburg. But England bore even a greater impact. In England, labouring population formed secret Corresponding Society in support of French Revolution in spite of the laws which prohibited them and gave the State authorities power to take to repressive measures for this. Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), a shoemaker, poet, publicist and orator played an important role. When France was declared a republic, this Corresponding Society secretly sent its message of sympathy and solidarity to the proposed Revolutionary Convention to be held in Paris. Naturally, when it came to the notice of English Authorities, these societies were severely persecuted. As a result, workers’ associations, assembly and societies were banned in 1800 that continued up to 1824.

However, the year 1817 saw a deadly conflict between English Government and the workers that culminated in the form of “Manchester Massacre” in 1819 which brought several scores of workers dead at the hands of the enormous cavalry forces that were employed the rebel workers. Not only this, new repressive measures and Gag laws were imposed. But ultimately in 1824 the English workers won the famous Coalition Laws (1824-25) that gave the workers legal rights to form organisations and unions to fight for better salary, better working conditions and for lesser numbers of working hours.

This marks the beginning of the English trade union movement. It also gave birth to political societies which began the struggle for universal suffrage.

Restoration Period As A Precursor Of July 1830 Revolution Of France

Meanwhile, in France, in 1815, Napoleon was defeated and the era of Restoration began that lasted approximately fifteen years till 1830. It was marked by a number of huge concessions that were provided to the landlords who had ‘suffered’ during the French Revolution. However, land could not be restored to them. Rather, a huge compensation amounting to few billion francs was given to them in lieu of the land they had lost to the peasants.

There arose a huge reaction against these concessions. Restoration thus led to new conflict in France. Liberals and the conservatives were again face to face against each other. This conflict was the main reason of the revolution that broke out in July 1830.

As if whatever happened in France had effect in England, this July Revolution again had a direct impact and led to the beginning of an energetic movement for a wider suffrage as a result of which the English industrial bourgeoisie were granted the right to vote.

But, at the same time, the workers were left in the lurch i.e. were not granted the right to vote.

In reaction to this treachery of the liberals, in 1836, the London Workingmen’s Association was formed by a number of capable leaders like William Lovett (1800-1877) and Henry Hetherington (1792-1849). This was the prelude to the famous Chartist Movement in which fundamental political demands of the working class were formulated in a Charter and based on that even a workers’ separate political party was unsuccessfully sought to be organised.

The Chartist movement started in 1837 had advanced six demands: Universal suffrage, vote by secret ballot, parliaments elected annually, payment of members of parliament, abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament, and equalisation of electoral districts.

Workers Revolt In France

July French Revolution failed to establish a republic like that of 1792. It failed to restore what the French Revolution had brought to workers and toilers. The failure of the aim of the revolutionaries who participated in July Revolution resulted in a constitutional monarchy that gave concessions and freedom only to the bourgeoisie but waged war against the working class. As a result, a workers’ revolt broke out in 1831, in Lyons that was the centre of the silk industry in France. The revolt was strong that it had taken control of the city for few days. Their banner carried this slogan: “Live by work or die in battle.”

Later, one more such revolt again broke out in the same Lyons in 1834.

When we analyze the Lyons Revolts, we find that it brought to light for the first time the significance of the labour element as distinct from that of liberal bourgeois in the fight against aristocracy. It had raised the banner of revolt against the entire bourgeoisie and brought the basic demands of the working class to the fore. Yet, it is true that it was still much far from directing its attack on the foundations of the bourgeois system – private property and capitalist anarchic social production.

Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881)

Auguste Blanqui, one of the greatest French revolutionists, one who had taken part in the July French Revolution also, had tried to form revolutionary organisations of workers in Paris subsequent to Lyons revolts which showed that the most revolutionary element in France were the workers. In his organisations, the workers of other nationalities such as Germans, Belgians, swiss were also present. Blanqui wrongly believed that by provoking to revolt, political power could be seized even by a minority by displaying exemplary heroic deeds. He believed that by thus capturing power, they could enforce a number of measures favouring the working class and thus get their support. One such revolt was provoked, too, in Paris in May 1839 which was immediately defeated. Blanqui was sentenced to life imprisonment. Many were forced to flee from France. Many made their way to London where they continued their work by organising the famous Workers’ Educational Society in 1840 that had played a very significant role.

The Condition Of Germany In Particular After 1815

After The Napoleonic Wars came to an end with the crushing defeat of Napoleon in 1815 at the hands of the coalition of England, Germany, Austria and Russia, the destinies of many nations were to be determined in the infamous Vienna Congress held in 1814-15 that was however purportedly held so as to conclude peace. The Vienna Congress saw to it that all the territorial conquests of the French revolutionary period were completely wrenched from France. England took the biggest share as she was allowed to grab all the French colonies, whereas Germany was left wounded, to be contented with just a few of her own conquered regions like Palatinates to be returned to her. Her expectation of a unified Germany as a result of the War of Liberation was also shattered as she, at the behest of the then Czar Alexander I of the Russian Empire, was split into the north as Germany and the South as Austria.

This had enraged the German intelligentsia and students who started a movement, the cardinal purpose of which was the establishment of a Unified Germany as well as the advancement of enlightenment and culture among the German people as a preparation for unification. In addition to this, they declared Russia as their enemy number one as Russia, immediately after the Vienna Congress, had concluded the Holy Alliance with reactionary Prussia to crush revolutionary movements. It wasn’t for no reason that Marx and Engels also later wrote that the Russia was the mightiest prop of conservatism and reaction in Europe.

Anyone considered spying for Russia was looked down upon with great hatred and many times such spies were also killed. While such acts became an ideal for the future Russian Decemberists (Russian revolutionaries who tried to kill the Czar), it became a pretext for German government to swoop down upon the German intelligentsia. However, the student societies in particular were more enraged, grew more aggressive and gave birth to revolutionary organisations of early twenties.

At that time, a movement aimed at attempts to kick start armed insurrection was developing among the intelligentsia of Poland, Austria, France, and even Spain. It was the main trend among the revolutionaries, whether workers or those belonging to intelligentsia and petty bourgeoisie.

Soon its counterpart in literature also surfaced whose chief representative in Germany was Ludwig Borne, a Jew. He was a thoroughgoing political democrat. Ludwig Borne had greatly influenced Engels as well as Marx.

It must be remembered that when, in 1830, the July Revolution shook France, it also led to rebellions and uprisings in several areas and provinces of Germany. These rebellions had just subsided when its second wave again rolled over with the onset of Polish rebellion of 1831, though unsuccessful. As mentioned earlier Polish revolt was a direct consequence of the July 1830 Revolution of France. When persecution of the Polish revolutionaries began, the fled to take shelter in Germany and thus strengthened the already emerging revolutionary tendencies among the German intelligentsia. They also created a feeling of deep hatred for Russia and sympathy for Poland who was then under Russian domination.

We see, after 1831, a series of attempts for creating revolutionary movements in Germany, particularly in the Palatinate and the Rhine, both of which enjoyed greater freedom due to having been a part of France for a long time. It was after 1815 that the Rhine province was handed over to Prussia, the Palatinate to Bavaria. The inhabitants of the Rhine and the Palatinate province being accustomed to enjoying greater freedom, naturally resented German repression. In reaction to repression they usually naturally felt the need of and demanded a free and unified Germany where freedom, they thought, would a rule and repression an exception. Such were the effects of the great French Revolution.

In such an atmosphere, there arose a number of revolutionaries from among the ranks of the workers and the students in both these areas in the thirties. These revolutionaries were the finest product of the conditions of their time. They believed that once they won an armed insurrection, even in a locality, it would successfully create furore in support in the whole of Germany and thus they would liberate the whole country from aristocracy and win political freedom.

This thought gave many exemplary revolutionaries. Just to name a few, they were like  23 year old Philip Becker, Karl Schapper, Weidig (Wilhelm Liebknecht’s uncle who was a religious but nevertheless a fervent partisan of political freedom and a United Germany), Georg Buchner (who was the author of the drama The Death of Danton, and who tried to gain the sympathy of the peasantry for the revolutionary movement) and Theodor Schuster (who organised German workers in Paris and inseminated socialist thought in them and later formed The League of the Just whose members took part in the Blanqui uprising and shared the fate of the Blanquists and landed in prison. When released, they went to London where they formed Workers’ Educational Society which was later transformed into a communist organisation).

In addition to Borne who dominated the minds of the German intelligentsia, Heinrich Heine was the best and the most illustrious. He was a poet as well as a noted publicist whose organisation Paris Correspondence was of great educational importance to the youth.  

Borne and Heine were Jews. Whereas Borne came from the Palatinate, Heine from the Rhine province where Marx and Engels were born and grew. Both had great impact on what Marx and Engels later became.

Contemporariness Of Marx And Engels With The Rise Of Working Class

Here what we see is that the first ever rise of the proletariat as a contender of capitalist class for political power came at a time when Marx and Engels were about to attaining their manhood and maturity. Naturally, the gradual developments of Marx and Engels were commensurate with the rise and consolidation of workers and their movement as class and a movement as independent and distinct from all other previous classes including the liberal or revolutionary bourgeois.

The proletarian revolutionary movement took its most preliminary but definite shape when Marx and Engels was about to grow into manhood and maturity, first in the field of philosophy, then in politics and political economy. Both grew in close proximity with the emergence of the workers political, social and economic demands as an independent entity and  opposed to the entire camp of bourgeoisie that also showed, among other things, how the demand of democracy meant different things for the bourgeoisie and for the working class. Nevertheless, it showed that democracy is a must for the working class and fight for this democracy is indissolubly bound with their struggle for their emancipation which will come to be finally realised only with the final emancipation of the Humanity and liberation of Man from all His inferior forms of subjugation that subsume Him under some classes or estates.

Both were naturally able to see this emerging historical mission of the working class with their own naked eyes. It is, however, true that it wasn’t so simple for everyone to see this. The tumultuous development of working class in the whole of Europe was taking place meandering on different unbeaten, unseen and even through a hotch-potch of paths and sub-ways and therefore wasn’t discernible to all. It was only Marx and Engels who, in the midst of all this hotchpotch, could see what was of historical significance that was emerging before them. It is only they who

could see the proletariat’s singular role in completing this historical mission. Through all these they could see what role the proletariat is destined to play in the next leap of history from capitalism to communism. While they were quite young, between 22 and 26, they had acquired a very clear philosophical and scientific understanding of things that were about to happen as well as of the class that was to take the leadership of the whole Humanity. They successfully showed that it was the modern working class, the proletariat which is the ultimate product of the capitalist mode of production. 

But this could not happen in isolation from the proletarian movement. Not at all. They plunged with full capacity into what was going on the ground i.e. amidst workers movement, amidst the revolutions and got in touch with every practical thing and event taking place even in remote places. Being part of the turmoil, they understood it, analysed it and then theorised the tasks ahead for the working class. It is as if none other could do in a better way.

They made themselves an inalienable part of all secret organisations of the workers and fought their ‘ideologues’ for correct orientation and later turned themselves into their ablest, most enlightened and most efficient leaders, inspirers and finally the teachers of the world proletariat by mainly discovering with the help of their master piece – the dialectical and historical materialism – the inner general laws of history that have governed and will continue to govern the society in future. The most living idea and concept of the proletarian revolution is also the outcome of scientific understanding and application of the same laws in the field of society. The practical achievements of the proletarian movement of this own time and later after his death in the leadership of Lenin and others have proved beyond doubt that the making of Marx and Engels as a genius was nothing but the appreciation by them of the laws of  motion of history and nature and hence its light will never fade away. (to be continued)

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 8 / December 2020)]

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