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date: 28 January 2020

Engels, Friedrich [Frederick]free

  • Gareth Stedman Jones

Friedrich Engels (1820–1895)

by unknown photographer

Engels, Friedrich [Frederick] (1820–1895), businessman and revolutionary leader, was born on 28 November 1820 in Barmen, Westphalia, the son of Friedrich Engels (1796–1860), a textile manufacturer, and Elizabeth, née van Haar (1797–1873), the daughter of a schoolmaster of Dutch origin. Frederick (as he came to be known in England later in life) was the eldest of three brothers and four sisters. Brought up in a strongly Calvinist protestant household, Engels attended the Elberfeld Gymnasium, before being sent to Bremen to be trained in the merchant's profession. From school onwards, however, Engels developed radical literary ambitions which first drew him towards the literary movement Young Germany and then in 1841 brought him into contact with the Young Hegelian circle in Berlin, where he served one year's military service. During these years in Bremen and Berlin Engels abandoned his family faith and developed a double life, which he was to maintain through most of his life. While preparing himself for work in the family business he wrote prolifically for the liberal and radical press under the pen-name Friedrich Oswald.

Manchester and The Condition of the Working Class in England

In November 1842 Engels left for England to work in his father's Manchester textile firm, Ermen and Engels. Already a revolutionary republican and an admirer of Jacobinism from his days in the Young Hegelian circle in Berlin, Engels was converted on his way to England by Moses Hess to a belief in 'communism'. Convinced also by Hess's book of 1841, Die europäische Triarchie, of the imminence of social revolution in England, Engels used his two-year stay to study the conditions which would bring it about. From this visit came two pieces of writing which were to establish his lasting importance. The first, an essay entitled 'Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie' ('Outlines of a critique of national economy') published in the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher in 1844, was the earliest Young Hegelian attempt at economic criticism and exerted a decisive influence upon Marx's identification of socialism with the critique of political economy. The second, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England nach eigner Anschauung und authentischen Quellen, was published in Leipzig in 1845 (English trans. as The Condition of the Working Class in England, New York, 1887). It established his fame in Germany and has remained famous as a classic account of urban conditions during the period of the industrial revolution. Together these works attest to the importance of what Engels accomplished before his collaboration with Karl Marx and indicate that Marxist socialism was as much the creation of Engels as of Marx.

Early relations with Marx

Returning home through Paris in the summer of 1844, Engels had his first serious meeting with Marx. Their lifelong collaboration dated from this point with an agreement to produce a joint work, Die heilige Familie, oder, Kritik der kritischen Kritik (1845; Eng. trans. as The Holy Family, 1956), setting out their disagreements with other tendencies within Young Hegelianism. This was followed by a second and unfinished joint enterprise, Die deutsche Ideologie (German Ideology) written in 1845–6, in which their 'materialist conception of history' was expounded systematically for the first time. In both these works, however, Engels's contribution was marginal.

After residing with his family in Barmen, while writing The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels left for Brussels in April 1845. Ostensibly travelling for purposes of research and continuing to rely upon an uncertain allowance from his father, he spent the years between 1845 and 1848 engaged in political activity among German artisan and communist groupings in Paris and Brussels. The political strategy of the Communist Correspondence Committee, of which he was part, was to encourage international discussion of ‘scientific questions’ among communists and socialists and to win supporters in German workers' educational societies for open democratic and communist agitation. It was for one of these groups, The League of the Just (subsequently the Communist League), that Engels wrote the first draft of the Communist Manifesto in 1847.

During the 1848 revolution, Engels joined Marx in Cologne to work as a collaborator on the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Until the spring of 1849 the strategy of the paper was to act as the democratic wing of a middle-class liberal movement against absolutism. Only after the bourgeoisie had failed to play its allotted role in the revolution did the paper openly espouse independent social revolutionary action on the part of workers and peasants. Engels wrote on international and central European affairs until September 1848, but after a warrant was issued for his arrest he fled to Belgium and then France. During the rest of the autumn of 1848 he followed the wine harvest and its pleasures through the Loire and Burgundy to Switzerland, where he remained until he judged it safe to return to Cologne in January 1849. He continued to work on the paper until May 1849, when Elberfeld and other towns rose in revolt against the rejection by the German princes of the Frankfurt liberal constitution. Engels participated in the defence of Elberfeld until expelled as a communist. He then travelled to Baden and the Palatinate, where in June and July he took part in the last phase of armed resistance to the counter-revolution. He then crossed over into Switzerland, made his way to Genoa, and from there travelled by sea to England, where he arrived in November 1849.

During the following year Engels and Marx attempted to resume their previous political and journalistic activity in London. They re-established the Neue Rheinische Zeitung as a bi-monthly review aimed at the democratic and communist diaspora. It was for this journal that Engels composed his long essay 'The peasant war in Germany', aimed at strengthening awareness of German traditions of revolutionary resistance. Engels also wrote extensively on developments in France and Germany for Harney's Chartist monthly, the Democratic Review. When the Neue Rheinische Zeitung folded Engels decided in November 1850 to return to work for the family firm in Manchester. But he continued journalistic activity over the next few years, both as a way of remaining prepared for the next revolutionary upheaval and as a means of supporting Marx in London while he elaborated the critique of political economy upon which he had been engaged since the mid-1840s. Thus, it was initially to combat the firebrand insurrectionism of remnants of the Communist League that Engels developed a journalistic expertise in military affairs and it was to assist Marx that he wrote a series of articles under Marx's name, later published as Revolution and Counter-Revolution, or, Germany in 1848 (an account of the revolutions of 1848) reprinted from the New York Daily Tribune and edited by Eleanor Marx Aveling (1896).

Manufacturing and marriage: the ambiguities of a bourgeois

From November 1850 to July 1869 Engels worked—first as an employee and then (from 1861) as a partner—in the firm of Ermen and Engels, manufacturers of cotton twist in Manchester. His income rose from around £100 per annum in the early 1850s to around £3000 in 1869. Throughout this period Engels led an elaborate double life. As English representative of the family firm he maintained lodgings in the centre of Manchester and participated in the lifestyle of the city's business élite. He was a member of the Albert Club and the Manchester Athenaeum, rode in the Cheshire hunt, and patronized the Schiller Institute. His personal and political life, on the other hand, was lived in a separate household in suburban Ardwick, where he maintained a relationship with Mary Burns (c.1823–1863) and subsequently with her sister, Lizzie (Lydia Burns; 1827–1878).

Engels apparently first met Mary, an Irish-born worker employed in the Ermen and Engels Victoria Mills, while collecting material for his book during his stay in England between 1842 and 1844, and she accompanied him to Brussels in 1845. But there is no indication of her being with him in Paris or Cologne, and some evidence of his involvement with other women during these years. In the 1850s Engels and Mary were registered in Ardwick as Mr and Mrs Boardman, with Lizzie keeping house. In 1863, after Mary's death of heart disease, Engels transferred his affections to Lizzie. After his move to London in 1870 he lived with her openly, and he married her on her deathbed on 12 September 1878. The status of these relationships has been the object of controversy. In Brussels in 1847, for example, one eyewitness noted that Mary was not acknowledged by Mrs Marx; similarly in 1851, in his correspondence with Marx, Engels was still referring to himself as a bachelor. Nor is there any indication that either of the Burns sisters was ever introduced to the Engels family. On the other hand, Engels was deeply hurt when Marx expressed only cursory regret about Mary's death in a letter begging funds for his family. Thereafter relations appear to have become more relaxed; Marx's daughter, Eleanor, paid visits to the Engels household, and Lizzie appears to have enjoyed friendly relations with Mrs Marx once the couple moved to Regent's Park Road, around the corner from the Marx family. Nevertheless, in the whole of his correspondence there is little detail about his relationship with Lizzie and virtually nothing beyond his reproachful letter to Marx about his feelings for Mary. Despite his theoretical commitment to female emancipation as part of the transcendence of class society (stated in Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884), it seems clear that in his personal life Engels's views on a woman's role were quite conventional and that he avoided relationships with women who might challenge him as equals.

The ambiguity surrounding Engels's personal relationships formed part of a larger tension between his life as businessman and his commitment to revolutionary politics. Although Engels openly espoused the communist cause even in his native Barmen from 1844 onwards, he never broke with his family. During the 1850s, before the time when he became comparatively wealthy, it is estimated that he sometimes diverted as much as half his annual income to the Marx family. Yet Engels appears also to have remained a diligent member of the family firm and a dutiful son, escorting his parents on a tour of Scotland in 1859, regularly meeting up with his mother during summer holidays at Ostend or Ramsgate into the 1870s, and keeping up with his brothers and sisters until his death. It is clear also that his tastes remained unapologetically bourgeois. He once confessed that his idea of paradise was a bottle of Château Margaux 1848.

Popularizing and supporting Marx

During the 1850s and 1860s Engels wrote little of substance. But among his numerous journalistic contributions were a series of attempts to publicize Marx's Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie in 1859 and volume 1 of Das Kapital in 1867. These contributions are perhaps most noteworthy in highlighting the extent to which Engels's outlook and his interpretation of Marx's work still derived from his Young Hegelian formation. 'Marx was, and is', he wrote in 1859, 'the only one who could undertake the work of extracting from Hegelian Logic the kernel which comprised Hegel's real discoveries … and to construct the dialectical method divested of its idealistic trappings' (Selected Works, 1.513). They also indicate Engels's growing interest in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of nature, and his ambition to situate what he called Marx's 'materialist conception of history' within an overall schema which would also reconcile his revised version of Hegelian dialectics with evolutionary biology, embryology, and other sciences of nature. Engels's interest in the development of science was already apparent in his 'Umrisse' of 1844, in which he supported his argument by reference to the work of Davy and Liebig. The idea of supporting Marx's discoveries with a general cosmology buttressed by reference to the latest scientific findings may also have originated in his first stay in Manchester. It was an approach employed by the Owenites and, in particular, by his friend the Owenite lecturer John Watts (1818–1887), who in his 1843 lectures 'The philosophy of socialism' at the Manchester Hall of Science used the chemical discoveries of Davy and Liebig to discredit the Malthusian notion of static agricultural productivity. Engels's writings on dialectics and the development of the natural sciences were published posthumously as Dialektik der Natur in 1925. But contemporaries were given some indications of his position in Anti-Dühring (1877) and Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie (1886).

In 1869 Engels retired from the firm with a settlement of £12,500 and resumed his political life. As Marx's health declined in the 1870s Engels took over his work during the last years of the International Working Men's Association (1864–72) and shouldered increasing responsibility for corresponding with infant socialist parties, most notably the newly founded German Social Democratic Party. Engels's most important work during this period was his polemic against the German positivist socialist Eugen Dühring. Anti-Dühring was the first comprehensive exposition of Marxian socialism in the realms of philosophy, history, and political economy. The success of this work, and in particular extracts from it such as Socialisme utopique et socialisme scientifique (1879), published in English as Socialism, Utopian and Scientific in 1892, represented the decisive turning point in the international diffusion of Marxism and shaped its understanding as a theory in the period before 1914.

After Marx's death in 1883, when he delivered a lapidary funeral oration, Engels devoted most of his own last years to the editing and publishing of the remaining volumes of Das Kapital from Marx's manuscripts. Volume 2 appeared in 1885 and volume 3 in 1894. He also hoped to prepare a related volume dealing with the history of political economy, but failing eyesight and the formidable difficulties of editing the preceding volumes forced him to hand over this task to Karl Kautsky, who subsequently published the work under the title Theories of Surplus Value.

When Engels retired in 1869 he settled an annual allowance upon the Marx family, and in 1870 he and Lizzie, together with her niece, Mary Ellen (known as Pumps), and a maid moved to London. After Lizzie's death in 1878 Pumps briefly took over as housekeeper, followed in 1883 after Marx's death by the Marx family servant, Helene (Lenchen) Demuth. After her death in 1890 the house was managed by Louise, née Strasser (1860–1950), the recently divorced wife of Karl Kautsky, and, from 1893, Mrs Louise Freyberger. Engels died of cancer of the throat at his house, 41 Regent's Park Road, London, on 5 August 1895. He was cremated at Woking, Surrey, on 10 August 1895, and his ashes were scattered off Beachy Head in accordance with his wishes.

In 1962 a document surfaced, purportedly a letter from Louise Freyberger to August Bebel, dated 2–4 September 1898. It claimed that on his deathbed Engels, writing on a slate, had revealed that the father of Lenchen Demuth's illegitimate son, Henry Frederick (born on 23 June 1851), had been Marx himself, and that he was making this known lest it be thought that he was the father and had acted shabbily towards the child. This letter was apparently corroborated by the correspondence between the Marx daughters in which allusions were made to feelings of guilt towards Frederick and to Engels's irritation. But there are a number of unlikely elements in the story, most obviously the absence of any evidence of strain in the relations between Lenchen and Mrs Marx. The guilt towards Frederick may simply have been the result of his being sent out to care. The circumstances in which this letter became public are slightly suspicious, and there is no other evidence either direct or circumstantial linking Frederick Demuth with either Marx or Engels. Most probably the letter was a forgery.

Engels and the British context: an assessment

Three aspects of Engels's life and work deserve particular attention in a British context. The first concerns his 'Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie', written for the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher in Paris in 1844. As noted above, this essay has generally been regarded as important because of its impact upon Marx, who acknowledged it in his own Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie of 1859 as a 'brilliant sketch'. The core of Engels's case was that all the categories of political economy presupposed competition, which in turn presupposed private property. For Marx, the Engels critique suggested an alternative to Proudhon's approach (Qu'est-ce que la propriété?, 1840), which led to a notion of equal wages and of society conceived as 'abstract capital'. If Engels's essay did mark the beginning of Marx's ambition to reach a ‘scientific’ notion of socialism through the critique of political economy, it suggests a far higher degree of continuity between Marxian and British Owenite socialism than has generally been assumed. For Engels was probably stimulated to write his 'Umrisse' by the appearance in 1842 of Facts and Fictions of Political Economists by his friend John Watts. Watts, drawing upon the work of previous radical and socialist critics, Thomas Hodgskin, William Thompson, and John Bray, condemned the split between moral and political economy, condemning the latter for its exclusive focus upon wealth and its acceptance of the 'competitive system' as a starting point. Although restating the argument in historical and Young Hegelian terms, Engels relied heavily upon Watts both for the basis of his argument and for many of its points of detail.

Secondly, and most obviously, Engels's British reputation rests on his account The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels's book is important in several respects. Not only was it written from an unusual perspective—that of a German philosophical communist dedicated to the cause of the working classes—and not only was it based on extensive reading of government inquiries and press reports, it was also the product of Engels's extensive contacts with local labour activists. In particular, Engels relied upon information supplied by the Chartist leader and factory campaigner James Leach (c.1806–1869), whose Stubborn Facts from the Factories by a Manchester Operative appeared in 1844. Engels's acquaintance with local leaders makes his account of Chartism of particular interest.

In addition, in his eyewitness description of the vivid contrast between suburban and proletarian Manchester, Engels produced what many have regarded as a classic account of the nineteenth-century industrial town, fit to stand comparison with Dickens's Hard Times or Disraeli's Sybil. In particular his description of the spatial configuration of Manchester, constructed in such a way that its affluent burghers need never confront the squalor and misery upon which their wealth was based, has been seen as a decisive symbol for the invisibility of the conditions in which wealth under capitalism was produced.

It is important, however, to realize that Engels's description was not simply the product of raw and unprecedented experience. It was not his first visit to Britain (he had been in Manchester in 1838) and he had arrived in 1842 fully convinced by Hess's Die europäische Triarchie that England was heading for social revolution. In other respects, too, he came to his material with formed views: acquaintance with Hegel's work predisposed him towards contrasts of 'appearance' and 'essence'; agreement with the views of Feuerbach and Marx on the alienation of labour predisposed him to associate the condition of the proletariat with degradation; and a reversion to animality and an admiration for Thomas Carlyle reinforced his conviction of the inhumanity of the 'cash nexus'. Nevertheless, the result was a particularly powerful and memorable portrait of urban and industrial England, and a classic account of the industrial revolution and the development of the working class. This was to form the basis of Marx's account of industrial capitalism. Engels, following Hess, believed himself only to be tracing the destiny of England. Marx, however, in the Communist Manifesto turned Engels's account into a universal picture of modern industry and proletarian revolt.

The third point concerns Engels's political and intellectual legacy. Engels's political conception of British society was ultimately quite uncomplicated and remained remarkably constant: communism (or socialism) was the modern form of democracy. Modern capitalism had brought to power a new bourgeois class who controlled the state and exploited the proletariat—the great majority of the people. The aim, therefore, was to establish rule by a party representing the proletarian majority and to abolish private ownership of the means of production, the main cause of the poverty of the people. This democratic-communist transformation was to be accomplished, if necessary, by force. In the first half of his life the legacy of the French Revolution, an upbringing under Prussian absolutism, and his experiences of 1848 all led him to associate this change with violent revolution. But in his later years, as the condition of British workers improved and their political rights increased, as a result, Engels thought, of Britain's supremacy in the world market, Engels turned increasingly away from the romantic insurrectionism of his youth. Unlike Marx he was happy to acknowledge the improvements which had occurred since his book of 1845 and to adjust his theory to the changing political situation. He believed that British workers would again turn to socialism once economic supremacy was lost, and thought this to be happening the 1880s. In consequence he was generally opposed to revolutionary or ‘Marxist’ sects and favoured mass constitutional working-class parties. Towards the end of his life he warmly welcomed the new unskilled trade unionism of 1889 and the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1892. Engels's pragmatism, his ecumenical stance towards parties of labour, and his economistic approach to political change left a lasting impact upon British radicals, socialists, and communists, and his picture of the development of the nineteenth-century British labour movement has remained and will continue to be an important influence upon the work of social and labour historians.


  • Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: selected works, ed. Institute of Marxism-Leninism, 3 vols. (1969–70)
  • G. Mayer, Friedrich Engels: eine Biographie, 2 vols. (1971)
  • W. O. Henderson, The life of Friedrich Engels, 2 vols. (1976)
  • D. Rjazanov, Marx and Engels (1927)
  • T. Carver, Friedrich Engels: his life and thought (1989)
  • H. Schmidtgall, Friedrich Engels' Manchester-Aufenthalt 1842–1844 (Trier, 1981)
  • G. S. Jones, ‘Engels and the history of Marxism’, The history of Marxism, ed. E. J. Hobsbawm, 1 (1982), 290–326
  • G. Claeys, ‘The political ideas of the young Engels, 1842–1845: Owenism, Chartism and the question of violent revolution’, History of Political Thought, 6 (1985), 455–78
  • Die Herkunft des Friedrich Engels: Briefe aus der Verwandtschaft, 1791–1847, ed. M. Knieriem and others (Trier, 1991)
  • G. S. Jones, ‘Voir sans entendre: Engels, Manchester et l'observation sociale en 1844’, Genèses (March 1996), 4–17
  • D. McLellan, Karl Marx: his life and thought (1973)
  • M. Rubel, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Karl Marx avec un appendice, un répertoire des oeuvres de Friedrich Engels (1956)


  • Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. and papers


  • photograph, repro. in G. Mayer, Friedrich Engels, 2 vols. (1934), frontispiece [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£25,267 13s. 11d.: resworn probate, Jan 1896, CGPLA Eng. & Wales