In October 1842, a wealthy businessman from the Rhine province of Prussia aired his grievances about his wayward son. “[He] is like a scabby sheep in a flock and openly opposes the beliefs of his forefathers,” he wrote in a letter. “I hope however to give him plenty of work to do and — wherever he may be — I will arrange for him to be very carefully watched so that he does not do anything to endanger his future career.”
A Christian Pietist and strict disciplinarian, Friedrich Engels Sr was naive to think he could quell his eldest son’s revolutionary instincts. Already a Hegelian philosopher and recent convert to communism, this twenty-two-year-old’s Weltanschauung (or “worldview”) had long outgrown parental sway. Yet the senior Engels persisted. One month after threatening “plenty of work,” he sent his son to Salford, then on the outskirts of Manchester, to manage a cotton mill that he part-owned. This might have been a good use of man power — but as a means of deterring young Friedrich from pursuing a life of revolution, his ploy came up remarkably short.
Had he declined the job at Ermen & Engels, situated in the heartland of industrial England, the trajectory of modern socialist thought would look rather different. An autodidact from a young age, Friedrich saw his father’s demands as a golden opportunity to glean firsthand experience of the world’s most advanced industrial economy. Two centuries since his birth, Engels’s status as a colossus of revolutionary socialism can be traced right back to his decision to agree to come to Manchester — allowing him a direct, and not only theoretical, education in the exploitation the working class faced.
Meeting the Workers
In the months leading up to his move, Engels had increasingly immersed himself in radical journalism and left-wing politics. He became heavily interested in the rising class conflict, regularly contributing to Rheinische Zeitung, a German newspaper whose editorial line was soon radicalized by a young Hegelian called Karl Marx. Having set off for England via the great port city of Bremen — where he penned political texts as Friedrich Oswald — Engels stopped off in Cologne in October 1842 to the staff at the paper. A first meeting with his future friend Marx was curiously unremarkable, but the political philosophy of one of the editors, Moses Hess, left a lasting imprint on the young thinker. “Engels was a revolutionary to the core before we met, but when he left me he was a passionate communist,” Hess remembered.
By the time Engels reached England in November 1842, it appeared to be the cusp of social revolution. Just weeks previously, a thwarted general strike by the Chartists — a mass working-class movement demanding male suffrage and annual parliaments — had displayed the seismic proportions of the class struggle in England, giving an excited young Engels a real-world sense of workers’ potential power. Yet such news from afar paled in comparison to what he saw with his own eyes.
Engels was not naive to workers’ conditions: indeed, he had seen exploitation and destitution as a young apprentice in the industrial cities of Wuppertal and Bremen. “Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, particularly the factory workers in Wuppertal,” he said about the former city in one letter. “Syphilis and lung diseases are so widespread as to be barely credible.”
In Manchester, he was routinely exposed to the brutal machinations of the capitalist system in the slums and manufacturing establishments of the city. In the Old Town district, he described a public bathroom as being so squalid that “the inhabitants of the court can only enter or leave the court if they are prepared to wade through puddles of stale urine and excrement.” From poverty wages and bad conditions to rampant child labor and low life expectancy, the Victorian gospel of moral and economic progress was revealed to be fundamentally corrupt.
Engels was already a theorist: his 1843 Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy provided the catalyst for Marx’s major studies over the next four decades (his friend later referred to this essay as a “brilliant sketch”). But a text born in Manchester — the first substantial articulation of Engels’s revolutionary goals — endures as one of his most vital works. First published in Leipzig in 1845, The Conditions of the Working Class in England translated firsthand contact with worker oppression into a sweeping analysis of the evolution of industrial capitalism. Writing at the exact moment that the modern industrial city began to emerge, Engels’s study was an extraordinary document of not just the proletariat’s suffering, but its rising political awareness.
In the introduction to the work, the author directly addressed the working class, with whom he fully sympathized despite the noted conflict of his day job at Ermen & Engels. “I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors,” he said. “I have done so: I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port-wine and champagne of the middle-classes, and devoted my leisure-hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain Working-Men; I am both glad and proud of having done so.”
Any self-congratulatory tone aside, Engels’s good intentions — and considerable efforts — were self-evident in The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Called “one of the greatest chronicles of the industrial experience” by biographer Tristram Hunt, it swiftly propelled his name among socialists, as an authority on the direct social implications of modern industrialization. In 1895, following Engels’s death, Lenin succinctly summed up what set it apart: “[He] was the first to say that the proletariat is not only a suffering class; that it is, in fact, the disgraceful economic condition of the proletariat that drives it irresistibly forward and compels it to fight for its ultimate emancipation. And the fighting proletariat will help itself.”
The sea change that occurred within Engels during his first spell in England between November 1842 to August 1844 defined the rest of his life and career. Those two years were the making of a revolutionary democrat and a revolutionary realist who devoted his life to struggling for the oppressed. While piecing together Das Kapital in London in 1863, Marx, too, recognized this as a golden age for his closest confidant. “What power, what incisiveness and what passion drove you to work in those days,” Marx wrote in a letter. “That was a time when you were never worried by academic scholarly reservations! Those were the days when you made the reader feel that your theories would become hard facts if not tomorrow then at any rate on the day after.”
Capitalism by Day, Communism by Night
As the ungovernable eldest son of a family of German industrialists, Engels was seemingly fated for a life of considerable cognitive dissonance. But the double life he actively chose to lead — contributing to capitalist oppression during the day and working to realize a communist revolution by night — remains a sticking point when it comes to his legacy. It’s a conflict that extended into his personal affairs, not least in his covert, twenty-year relationship with Mary Burns, a working-class Irish woman whose life experience had marked influence on his major works. Writing to Marx — one of the few individuals who knew the ins and outs of his clandestine second life — Engels tried to convince himself of his duplicity: “I live nearly all the time with Mary so as to save money,” he said. “Unfortunately I cannot manage without lodgings; if I could I would live with her all the time.”
On the upside, Engels’s double-dealing paid some major dividends. Not only did the statistical insights obtained from his managerial perch in Manchester become notable examples of advanced industry in Das Kapital, Engels was a critical source of financial help in funding the research of Marx’s epic critique of the modern market economy. Yet intellectual collaboration between the two took precedence. When the London-based Marx visited in the summer of 1845, two years before they composed The Communist Manifesto, it was in the Reading Room of Manchester’s Chetham’s Library that the pair’s unity of purpose blossomed.
Upon his birth, two hundred years ago, Engels was neither an Englishman nor a likely revolutionary. Today, his status as an agitator, reformer, and adopted son of Manchester grows stronger by the day — not least after a Soviet-era statue of him was erected in the city in 2017. But he is not just a dead figure monumentalized in stone. For even now, his words in the introduction to The Conditions of the Working Class in England feel like a firm invitation to focus on the bigger picture, and to push forward in the struggle, harder than ever before: “Much remains to be undergone; be firm, be undaunted — your success is certain, and no step you will have to take in your onward march will be lost to our common cause, the cause of humanity!”