The ‘grand old man’s’ revolutionary legacy
John Green’s Engels: A Revolutionary Life is both well written and a joy to read and will appeal to a wide readership. Review by Philip Wade.
The life of Friedrich Engels, the co-founder with Karl Marx of the revolutionary communist movement, was an extraordinary one. John Green’s book chronicles the great historical events Engels participated in, spanning the time he spent in Manchester, where he met many of the Chartist leaders, working for the radical German newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung, manning the barricades in Elberfeld, Germany, in the revolutionary upsurge of 1848 and his participation in the subsequent guerrilla war.
As Green points, out it was Engels own experiences of the misery of the working class that led to his vivid observations in The Condition of the English Working Class. The economic realities of what was at the time the most advanced form of capitalism made him realise that only by overcoming capitalism could ordinary working people and humanity as a whole be set free.
Green goes on to describe how, after the failed revolutions in Europe, Engels spent the next 20 years leading a double life. Engels ran a business partly owned by his family in Manchester during the day (to provide Marx with the financial security to do the research for Capital), only becoming involved in politics at night and on Sundays.
It was only when Engels was free from his obligations to his family in 1870, Green explains, that he finally moved to London, becoming almost immediately involved in organising support for the Paris Commune. Although the Commune only lasted a few short months, Green believes the impact of this first attempt to establish a workers’ government had a profound effect on the thinking of both Engels and Marx.
Green goes onto to show that after Marx’s death in 1883, Engels was determined to complete Marx’s life work. He laboured tirelessly to complete the second and third volumes of Capital. Green says of Engels, in this period, that he had become the “grand old man” of the international socialist movement, acting as its “international shop steward”, while also writing many of his great works.
Green continuously emphasises through the book that Engels and Marx were equal partners in their collaborative works, a partnership of two intellectual giants sharing the same ideas and beliefs. To demonstrate this, Green explains how Engels’ Principles of Communism, written in 1847 for the Communist League, provided much of the basis for the Communist Manifesto written with Marx a year later.
Green rightly considers it still to be one of most vivid condemnations of social repression and injustice, combined with a fervent demand for emancipation, He suggests that its continuing relevance can be seen if you replace the term “bourgeoisie” with “modern capitalism” in the following excerpt:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instrument of production and with them the whole relations of society….The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere ….”
Green recognises correctly that two of Engels’ great achievements, along with Marx, was the development of historical materialism (showing how the history of human kind is the history of evolving economic and property relations) and dialectical materialism (to analyse phenomena, both social and scientific, as they unfold in a contradictory way). These breakthroughs established the scientific basis for socialism.
The author repeatedly describes Engels’ great modesty, how he often tried to defer, wrongly in Green’s view, to his great friend Marx. Even to the extent that he insisted that his ashes were buried at sea to avoid any posthumous monuments. Yet as Green rightly points out, in helping to create a mass socialist movement by the end of the 19th century Engels needed “no monument other than the coming socialist revolution”.