Frederick Engels: A life devoted to revolution and scientific socialism

BY:Darrell Rankin| February 5, 2021
Frederick Engels: A life devoted to revolution and scientific socialism


Frederick Engels (1820–95) and his close friend Karl Marx (1818–83) dedicated their lives to prepare the working class for its revolutionary future. As Vladimir Lenin put it, the two “taught the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself, and they substituted science for dreams.”

In Engels’ and Marx’s formative years, the newly forming industrial urban working class faced dramatic and unprecedented challenges — choosing sides in wars, impoverishment, long working days, and, not least, securing for itself an independent and conscious role in humanity’s affairs.

Marx and Engels met that challenge and in the process made a world-historic advance in philosophy, political economy, and political strategy, birthing what is known today as Marxism, or the ideology of the revolutionary working class.

When Marx and Engels developed their theory — maturely expressed in their Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) — socialism was popularly seen as a worldview of well-intentioned individuals, not as among the most important of the working class’s demands requiring political state power over the deposed capitalist and landowning classes.

The working class in 1848 had little experience in the struggle for political power. Socialist revolution was not impending, inevitable, and urgently required as it is in modern times. Before Marx and Engels, movements to emancipate working people were guided by immediate demands and borrowings from moral writings, like those found in early Christianity.

The conditions of working-class struggle changed radically soon after Engels’ death, when monopoly capitalism replaced pre-monopoly or competitive capitalism. Within a decade of his death, Marxism was the ideological force behind all meaningful socialist and working-class advance, from the Russian Socialist Revolution (1917) and the end of two world wars (1918 and 1945) to the Cuban socialist revolution (1959), the formal (but not yet economic) independence of Europe’s former colonies, and much of our modern shorter work week.

Engels and Marx authored the foundation of Marxism’s theoretical and practical components, including an honest and scientific political economy of capitalism, the philosophy of dialectics and materialism in thought and nature, and the strategy, tactics, and aims of the revolutionary working class. They revealed the needed aids and avoidable pitfalls on the road to socialism.

Lenin concisely expressed their contribution:

Marx and Engels were the first to explain that socialism is not the invention of dreamers, but the final aim and necessary result of the development of the productive forces in modern society. All recorded history hitherto has been a history of class struggle, of the succession of the rule and victory of certain social classes over others. And this will continue until the foundations of class struggle and of class domination – private property and anarchic social production – disappear. The interests of the proletariat demand the destruction of these foundations, and therefore the conscious class struggle of the organised workers must be directed against them. And every class struggle is a political struggle. These views of Marx and Engels have now been adopted by all proletarians who are fighting for their emancipation.

Marx and Engels lived through great turmoil, practical and intellectual revolutionary struggle, and necessary retreats.

They welcomed capitalism’s ascent over outdated agrarian feudal societies, realizing that that epochal change was equally the prelude of working-class victory. As late as 1892 Engels wrote, “It seems a law of historical development that the bourgeoisie can in no European country get hold of political power — at least for any length of time — in the same exclusive way in which the feudal aristocracy kept hold of it during the Middle Ages.”

A few months after publishing the Manifesto, they jumped into the fray of the German revolution (1848–49) as publishers of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (Organ of Democracy, the first daily newspaper of the revolutionary working class). Marx founded the paper to fight for a democratic line which, Engels noted, “emphasized the specifically proletarian character in everything.” In a letter to Marx about fund-raising for the newspaper, Engels wrote that  “the radical bourgeois here also see in us their future arch-enemy and have no desire to put weapons in our hands that we would soon turn against them.”

* * * *

A review of Engels’ and Marx’s towering contributions to political economy and philosophy is beyond the intent of this article, which aims to emphasize Engels as a strategist on issues that burn with the greatest ferocity today, like the need to achieve peace and socialism while preserving an inhabitable Earth.

Here are a few aspects of his life and work which — along with the above overview — I hope will encourage any socialist or worker to read or reread Engels’ works.

Democracy and revolutionary strategy

Engels and Marx were well aware they probably would not experience the great revolutionary battles of the future. (Marx wrote to Engels, “If Mother Nature is kind to us we shall still live to see that triumph,” which proved not to be the case.)

And yet they left a bountiful legacy as pioneers of working-class strategy, like the struggle for democracy in 1848 as a necessary step before any serious battle for socialism, a teaching Lenin and the Russian Marxists upheld with world-historic success.

In 1916 Lenin summarized this thought as follows:

Socialism is impossible without democracy in two respects, 1. The proletariat cannot carry out a socialist revolution unless it has prepared for it by a struggle for democracy; 2. Victorious socialism cannot maintain its victory and bring humanity to the time when the state will wither away unless democracy is fully achieved.

The Manifesto sets no limits on how to conceive democracy, which is natural since, without the abolition of all forms of discrimination and oppression like war, private education, and private health care, democracy will continue to be narrowly defined in terms of parliamentary elections.

Marx and Engels espoused the view that democracy must have a far broader significance than voting every few years. Conceived this way, the workers’ democratic struggle consists in everything that leads to the abolition of classes and a future society where the working class becomes the human race.

Strategy, alliances, and acceptable compromises

The notion of continuing a revolutionary struggle for socialism after “first . . . winning the battle of democracy” (the Manifesto) was only one of Marx and Engels’ contributions to working-class strategy. They also advocated linking the immediate tasks of the working-class movement with its end aim of socialism, combining working-class and peasant struggles, the international solidarity and friendship of workers, alliances between working-class and small capitalist parties (however temporary), and the need to allow for the peculiarities of different countries.

Importantly, they did not tie the hands of future revolutionary forces in the kinds of alliances, positions, or compromises they would have to contemplate for a successful advance or retreat.

Against opportunism

After Engels’ death in 1895, the world labor movement fell under the influence of opportunist leaders of the Second International (an alliance of workers’ parties) who substituted Marxist ideas with illusions of their own, replacing working-class strategy with parliamentary election campaigns.

The opportunists were — as they are today — a powerful conduit of bourgeois ideas on workers, equating the interests of workers with capitalism, weakening democratic struggles, and influencing workers against revolutionary change. These misleaders practiced unprincipled submission to the bourgeoisie, like backing “their” national capitalists with votes in European parliaments during the imperialist First World War—all the while deceiving workers with revolutionary phrases.

The strategic and tactical ideas of Marx and Engels were brought back to life by Lenin and other Marxists who led the Russian Socialist Revolution, which is still the most serious blow ever suffered by global capitalism.

Against war — for internationalism

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels remark that the workers’ struggle is at first a “national struggle” “in form” but not “in substance.” There are dangers and hardships best known to the workers of a particular nation, but which have enormous international significance.

As early as 1884, Engels realized the unprecedented danger of militarism at home in Germany and abroad. Realizing that the Prussian army was “a more infamous tool of reaction than ever before,” he proposed a policy to erode the spirit of unthinking submissiveness among the Prussian soldiers who were drawn mainly from the heavily oppressed mass of rural laborers.1 (Prussia’s military caste — the spawn of its landowners — was an oppressive weapon of Germany’s capitalists used to consolidate their nation and later to carry out their imperialist aims. The feudal aristocracy played a similar role in other imperialist nations.)

Engels wanted the workers’ representatives in Germany’s parliament to submit a draft law to lease public land to rural laborers for common cultivation. Such a measure would ease the hardship of rural laborers and blunt their attraction to a military life.

Engels’ proposal related directly to the danger of war and open dictatorship — vital issues today. It correctly combined the need to ally workers and peasants, drew attention to the particular danger of German militarism, and gave leadership in the democratic struggle for peace, lighting the way to a socialist society.

No ideological truce or surrender

The leaders of Germany’s workers’ party failed to understand Engels’ line of thought and did not take up his suggestion, although the proposal launched a long controversy over the party’s agrarian policy. August Bebel, one of the leaders, said that it would be a waste of time because the government would not consider such a law.

Engels agreed that the party should make only practicable suggestions, but they should be

objectively practicable, not necessarily practicable for the present government. I go further, when we suggest socialist measures calculated to lead to the overthrow of capitalist production (like this one), then only measures which are objectively practicable but impossible for this government. . . . This proposal will not be carried out by any Junker or bourgeois government.  To show the rural proletariat of the eastern provinces the way to end Junker and tenant exploitation; to put the means to do this into their hands; to set in motion the very people whose enslavement and stultification produces the regiments which are the foundation of Prussia; in short, to destroy Prussia from within at the root — they certainly wouldn’t do that.  It is a proposal which we must take up under all circumstances as long as the large estates exist. . . . With this alone can we destroy Prussia, and the sooner we popularise this proposal the better.2

Suggestions (like that of Engels relating to Prussian rural laborers), the elaboration of demands, and working-class propaganda are essential to prepare workers for their revolutionary future.

Scientific foresight

The ideological struggle with opportunism over his suggestion could not have escaped Engels’ mind when he wrote in 1887 exactly how the next European war would prepare the conditions for socialist revolution. Engels wrote:

No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. . . . [O]nly one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class. . . . The war may perhaps push us temporarily into the background, may wrench from us many a position already conquered. But when you [referring to Europe’s “lords, princes and statesmen”- DR] have unfettered forces which you will then no longer be able again to control, things may go as they will: at the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either be already achieved or at any rate inevitable.

As if he were still alive, Engels seems to have understood the serious problems of modern socialism’s struggle with dying capitalism, except the stakes today are far higher, involving weapons of mass destruction able to end intelligent life on earth for many eons.

* * * *

Marx and Engels’ interests encompassed everything natural and human, from human influence on nature to nature’s impact on humans, from the greatest works of culture to the horror and art of war; from diverse ethnological studies to the relationship of the family to the development of private property.

They eagerly followed and celebrated the accelerating advances in all fields of natural and social science.

In 1883 Engels gave a eulogy for Marx that applies as much to him as it did to his comrade. It reads in part:

An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat… and by historical science, in the death of this man . . .

Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general . . .

For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.

His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.



1. Ernst Wangermann, introduction to F. Engels, The Role of Force in History.
2. Engels to Bebel, January, 20, 1886.

Image: cover, Before the Sunrise, by Mikhail Dzhanashvili; Marx and Engels at printing house of Neue Rheinische Zeitung (public domain, Wikimedia Commons);  Engels’ portrait (public domain, Wikimedia Commons).




    Darrell Rankin lives in Winnipeg, Canada.

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