Friedrich Engels was one of the most important personalities of the 19th century and his ideas continue to influence our social discussions and discourses on a fair society today. Our biography presents him as an entrepreneur, philosopher and social critic, writer and journalist, revolutionary and visionary, but also as a dutiful son, loyal and generous friend and sociable host. It describes his eventful life at the time of industrialisation, which was to take him from Wuppertal (or Barmen) to Bremen, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Manchester and London.
Friedrich Engels was born on 28 November 1820 in Barmen (today a district of Wuppertal). He was the first of nine children of the entrepreneur Friedrich Engels sen. and his wife Elisabeth, née van Haar. His father gave him the nickname “Herzensstippelˮ.
The young family moved into the Barmer Bruch house no. 173, the grandparents lived in the house which is now referred to as Engels House. The five family houses and the clustered houses of the workers as production sites „form with the bleaching places for themselves almost a small semi-circular city“. Here Engels spent his childhood as a scion of one of Barmen´s richest families.
As a teenager, he got to know the factory organization and gained an insight into the business activities of the family-owned company, which expanded steadily. Engels family belonged to a united church of protestant denomination founded by his grandfather. On the basis of the lived pietism of the older generation, the revival movement, later caricatured by Engels, arose in the 1820s, which demanded a personal experience of faith and a Gospel-based lifestyle.
After dropping out of school, Friedrich Engels was sent by his father to Bremen. There he completed a two and a half year business apprenticeship in the warehouse of the overseas wholesale company of Consul Heinrich Leupold in Martinistrasse No. 11. The cosmopolitan hanseatic city of Bremen with its port was an important centre of world trade and departure point for the numerous emigrants to America. Here the cotton trade concentrated in Germany.
Engels began his journalistic career with reflections on culture, society and politics. Then he completed his military service from autumn 1841 to October 1842 as a one-year volunteer in the Guard Foot Artillery Regiment in Berlin. So theoretically he could have studied without a high school diploma that way. He used his stay in Berlin to attend lectures at the Royal Friedrich Wilhelms University.
During the teaching and military years, his thinking changed radically, increasingly rejecting Christian piety and the monarchical Prussian state.
After his military service in Berlin, Friedrich Engels resumed working for the family business. From December 1842 to August 1844 he worked as a “General Assistant” at Ermen & Engels in Manchester. Engels felt in Manchester, an industrial city with 350,000 inhabitants, "transferred into a whole new world".
Manchester was the centre of industrial Lancashire. Smoking factory chimneys, dirt, noise, stench and the conditions in the up to seven-storey factory buildings, in which people worked in shifts of 12 to 16 hours, made the city the „shock city“ of the 19th century. From 1787 to 1841, the number of cotton processing factories increased from 44 to 1,105. In 1782 Richard Arkwright built the first cotton factory in the city. From 1790 onwards, steam engines were used. Canals and the Liverpool-Manchester railway line, opened in 1830, supplied them with coal from nearby mining regions and connected Manchester with the port of Liverpool, which was important for import and export. Many calico printing works and the quarter of the warehouses, in which semi-finished goods were processed, also testified to the rapid industrialization.
With the July Revolution of 1830 in France, the liberal and democratic movement in Europe was growing. In 1848, growing tensions between progressive and restorative forces in many states led to a revolution.
After his return from Manchester, Friedrich Engels lived as a publicist and agitator from April 1845 to August 1846 in Brussels and until January 1848 in Paris. His maintenance was secured by fees and cash benefits from his family.
In Brussels and Paris German "early socialist" exile communities emerged. Intellectuals, free spirits, writers, who fled from German censorship, emigrated craftsmen and workers gathered here as well as political refugees from all over Europe. In Paris, there was no obligation to register in 1845 and Belgium had the most liberal constitution in Europe.
In 1846, Engels and Karl Marx pushed for the establishment of a network of revolutionary movements in Europe through Communist Correspondence Committees. In mid-1847, they joined the Communist League, which emerged from the League of the Just formed in 1836 by journeymen. In Brussels, a German Workers' Association was established in August 1847 with the help of Marx and Engels.
Engels welcomed the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1848 in France: "We confess that we did not hope for this brilliant success of the Paris proletariat." He was certain that the February Revolution would "give the world a push" and "the time of democracy" would dawn. In 1848, Engels and Marx founded the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Organ der Demokratie (NRhZ) in Cologne together with the publicist Heinrich Bürgers.
The Frankfurt Constitution of 28 March 1849, which should realize a German nation state, was rejected by Prussia and other states. There were various uprisings with which the adaption of the Imperial Constitution should be forced; above all in the Rhine province in Düsseldorf, Solingen and Elberfeld. After a first military operation in Elberfeld on 9 May, Engels came there on 11 May. The Security Committee entrusted him with the leadership of the barricade expansion in anticipation of a new military operation. Because of the rising suspicion that Engels was striving for a “red republic”, the Security Committee asked him on 14 May to leave the city immediately.
In mid-June 1849, Engels joined the Baden-Palatine Revolutionary Army. He served in the Freikorps of August Willich as his adjutant and took part in several battles. After the defeat against the Prussian and imperial troops, the Freikorps Willich, the last unit of the revolutionary army, fled to Switzerland on 12 July and was interned in the canton of Vaud. After staying in Vevey and Lausanne, Engels left for London with the approval of the Swiss authorities. Since the route via France would have been too risky, he went to Genoa and from there to London by ship (6 October to 12 November 1849).
When Friedrich Engels rejoined his father's company in Manchester in 1850, the cotton processing industry in Lancashire was at its peak. More than 2,000 spinning mills with 21.5 million spindles and 300,000 steam-driven looms were in use.
Friedrich Engels represented the family interests at Ermen & Engels. The company specialized in the production of tear-resistant "Diamond Thread" for machine sewing and hosiery manufacture. It was headed by Peter Jakob Ermen, later by Anton and Gottfried Ermen. After the death of his father in 1860, Friedrich was outsmarted by his brothers in Barmen to distribute the inheritance, but with the financial help of his mother (he paid everything back); he entered into a partnership with the Ermen brothers and held 20% of the company shares.
He now supported Karl Marx with regular payments. From 1851, Engels wrote about 170 articles in the name of Marx for the New York Tribune, mainly about military conflicts in Europe. He provided Marx with information on complex economic issues. Their correspondence included more than 1,000 letters during the Manchester years.
Living in two worlds, as a Cotton Lord and at the same time as a "revolutionary publicist", was exhausting. The high workload led to long illness and depressive conditions in 1857. By skillful investment and speculation in stocks - "mostly gas stocks, then waterworks & railway stocks" - he was finally wealthy enough to leave the company in 1869.
In 1870 Friedrich Engels moved to London, where Karl Marx lived with his family. London was the centre of colonial world trade and British finance. Engels now lived officially together with the Irish worker Lizzie Burns, whom he married on her deathbed in 1878, in the expensive district of Primrose Hill at 122 Regent's Park Road.
Engels cultivated political friendships and correspondences throughout Europe. Free from gainful employment, the secretary of the International Workers' Association, who corresponded in many languages, now had time for political activities and discussions. He met with Karl Marx almost daily. For the Marx daughters, he was the always generous “Uncle Angel” and also supported them and their partners. They were his surrogate family, with whom he enjoyed spending the summer holidays by the sea.
After Marx' death in 1883, Engels wanted to secure his scientific heritage, planned a Marx biography and a history of the International Workers' Association. He felt obliged to complete the capital, but he had learned little about the work progress during Marx’s lifetime and did not know what to expect. About 1,700 manuscript pages from the estate had to be deciphered. He was already able to publish the second volume in 1885. The edition of volume 3 only succeeded in December 1894. Especially Engels‘ Anti-Dühring helped Marx's theory to become more widespread and recognition.
In August 1869 a supraregional workers' organization was formed in Eisenach, the "Social Democratic Workers' Party" (SDAP) led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Under the influence of Marx and Engels, the SDAP wanted to implement social and economic improvements with trade unions and labour disputes. It was the first party to join the International Workers´ Association (IAA), which was led decisively by Marx and Engels, also known as the "First International". Since 1890s, Engels' house on Regent's Park Road was a meeting place for international socialism, especially on Sundays, with visitors like August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein or Paul Lafargue, but only a few Englishmen.
Friedrich Engels died on 5 August 1895 of esophageal and laryngeal cancer. On 27 September, his ashes were scattered in the sea near Eastbourne in the presence of Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Eduard Bernstein and Friedrich Leßner.
Lars Bluma, Thorsten Dette, Heike Ising-Alms