I’ve just read a review of a book about Engels entitled The Frock Coated Communist (due to be released on May Day).
Having not read the book itself, I can’t really comment on it. But the review prompted me to want to write something about Engels because he is so often overlooked.
The review opens by saying “It is a truth now universally acknowledged that capitalism’s most insightful philosopher is Karl Marx.” and the first paragraph ends with “Today, in the midst of a once-a-century crisis of capitalism, Das Kapital has raced to the top of the German bestseller lists and even President Sarkozy has been caught leafing through its pages.” The rest of the article is an account of the importance of Engels in the development of Marx’s economic views.
When Marx died, in 1883, Engels was left holding the baby. One of his tasks was to edit the unfinished Volume 111 of Das Kapital. According to the review, one thing Engels did was to
” … change Marx’s intent on a number of crucial passages with significant ideological repercussions. This was most obviously the case in the much debated Part III, ‘The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall’, in which Marx had outlined how profits tend to decline under capitalism as labour-saving technology progressively reduces the scope for extracting surplus value from living labour. Marx connected this falling profitability to the vulnerability of capitalism itself. But whereas the original manuscript referred to the ‘shaking’ of capitalist production, Engels spoke far more definitively of the ‘collapse’ of capitalism. A small change, but one with far-reaching consequences for later Marxists who repeatedly looked for a systemic ‘crisis’ or ‘breakdown’ of capitalism to usher in the communist dawn. It is a theme that has recently resurfaced in commentary on the credit crisis.“
I have no idea whether Engels changed Marx’s “intent” by speaking of the “collapse of capitalism”, rather than the “shaking of capitalism”. However I’m inclined to think that the “ideological repercussions” reflect the tendency of Communists to see a very mechanical connection between capitalist crisis and the collapse of capitalism. I doubt that Engels himself, thought like that.
The review does correctly point out the immense importance of Engels’ first hand experience of the process of proletarianization, due to having to work in his father’s textile business. In particular, it notes the importance of Engels’ article “The Condition of the Working Class In England” (1845).
Just out of interest I googled the Marx-Engels correspondence for that early period in their relationship (when both were still forming their views) and came across an 1845 letter from Engels to Marx in which he described the contradictions he was experiencing while writing this article and at the same time working for his father in Barmen, Germany ( where he had returned after a 22 month stint working for the same business in Manchester.) It’s wry, mischievous and entertaining. I’ll just quote a bit of it:
“As it is, there’s never any opportunity here for an occasional outburst of high spirits, the life I lead being all that the most splendiferous philistine could desire, a quiet, uneventful existence, replete with godliness and respectability; I sit in my room and work, hardly ever go out, am as staid as a German. If things go on like this, I fear that the Almighty may overlook my writings and admit me to heaven.
I assure you that I’m beginning to acquire a good reputation here in Barmen. But I’m sick of it all and intend to get away at Easter, probably to Bonn. I have allowed myself to be persuaded by the arguments of my brother-in-law [Emil Blank] and the doleful expression on both my parents’ faces to give huckstering another trial and for […] days have been working in the office. Another motive was the course my love affair was taking.
But I was sick of it all even before I began work; huckstering is too beastly, Barmen is too beastly, the waste of time is too beastly and most beastly of all is the fact of being, not only a bourgeois, but actually a manufacturer, a bourgeois who actively takes sides against the proletariat. A few days in my old man’s factory have sufficed to bring me face to face with this beastliness, which I had rather overlooked.
I had, of course, planned to stay in the huckstering business only as long as it suited me and then to write something the police wouldn’t like so that I could with good grace make off across the border, but I can’t hold out even till then. Had I not been compelled to record daily in my book the most horrifying tales about English society, I would have become fed up with it, but that at least has kept my rage on the simmer. And though as a communist one can, no doubt, provided one doesn’t write, maintain the outward appearance of a bourgeois and a brutish huckster, it is impossible to carry on communist propaganda on a large scale and at the same time engage in huckstering and industry.
Enough of that — at Easter I shall be leaving this place. In addition there is the enervating existence in this dyed-in-the-wool Christian-Prussian family — it’s intolerable; I might end up by becoming a German philistine and importing philistinism into communism.
For the time being write to me here. If I have already left, your letters will be forwarded.
In the book review, the author emphaises Engels’ vivid description of the human degradation which accompanied 19th century capitalism and goes on to argue that nowadays Engels’ “deep feeling for the human costs of capitalism resonates most powerfully in those countries at the sharp end of global capitalism – most notably the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China. For here all the horrors of breakneck industrialisation – capitalism transforming social relations, destroying old customs and habits, turning villages into cities, and workshops into factories – display the same savagery which Engels recounted in 19th-century Europe. With China now claiming the mantle of ‘Workshop of the World’, the pollution, ill health, political resistance and social unrest prevalent, for example, in the Special Economic Zones of Guangdong Province and Shanghai appear eerily reminiscent of Engels’ accounts of Manchester and Glasgow.” While this is undoubtedly true, there is no mention in the review of an extremely provocative passage in which Engels argued that pre-industrial society, even at its most idyllic was not fit for humans. I ’ll quote that passage in full because it is so confronting to romantics
Before the introduction of machinery, the spinning and weaving of raw materials was carried on in the workingman’s home. Wife and daughter spun the yarn that the father wove or that they sold, if he did not work it up himself. These weaver families lived in the country in the neighbourhood of the towns, and could get on fairly well with their wages, because the home market was almost the only one and the crushing power of competition that came later, with the conquest of foreign markets and the extension of trade, did not yet press upon wages. There was, further, a constant increase in the demand for the home market, keeping pace with the slow increase in population and employing all the workers; and there was also the impossibility of vigorous competition of the workers among themselves, consequent upon the rural dispersion of their homes. So it was that the weaver was usually in a position to lay by something, and rent a little piece of land, that he cultivated in his leisure hours, of which he had as many as he chose to take, since he could weave whenever and as long as he pleased. True, he was a bad farmer and managed his land inefficiently, often obtaining but poor crops; nevertheless, he was no proletarian, he had a stake in the country, he was permanently settled, and stood one step higher in society than the English workman of today.
So the workers vegetated throughout a passably comfortable existence, leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material position was far better than that of their successors. They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which, in itself, was recreation for them, and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbours, and all these games — bowling, cricket, football, etc., contributed to their physical health and vigour. They were, for the most part, strong, well-built people, in whose physique little or no difference from that of their peasant neighbours was discoverable. Their children grew up in the fresh country air, and, if they could help their parents at work, it was only occasionally; while of eight or twelve hours work for them there was no question.
What the moral and intellectual character of this class was may be guessed. Shut off from the towns, which they never entered, their yarn and woven stuff being delivered to travelling agents for payment of wages — so shut off that old people who lived quite in the neighborhood of the town never went thither until they were robbed of their trade by the introduction of machinery and obliged to look about them in the towns for work — the weavers stood upon the moral and intellectual plane of the yeomen with whom they were usually immediately connected through their little holdings. They regarded their squire, the greatest landholder of the region, as their natural superior; they asked advice of him, laid their small disputes before him for settlement, and gave him all honour, as this patriarchal relation involved. They were “respectable” people, good husbands and fathers, led moral lives because they had no temptation to be immoral, there being no groggeries or low houses in their vicinity, and because the host, at whose inn they now and then quenched their thirst, was also a respectable man, usually a large tenant-farmer who took pride in his good order, good beer, and early hours. They had their children the whole day at home, and brought them up in obedience and the fear of God; the patriarchal relationship remained undisturbed so long as the children were unmarried.
The young people grew up in idyllic simplicity and intimacy with their playmates until they married; and even though sexual intercourse before marriage almost unfailingly took place, this happened only when the moral obligation of marriage was recognised on both sides, and a subsequent wedding made everything good. In short, the English industrial workers of those days lived and thought after the fashion still to be found here and there in Germany, in retirement and seclusion, without mental activity and without violent fluctuations in their position in life. They could rarely read and far more rarely write; went regularly to church, never talked politics, never conspired, never thought, delighted in physical exercises, listened with inherited reverence when the Bible was read, and were, in their unquestioning humility, exceedingly well-disposed towards the “superior” classes. But intellectually, they were dead; lived only for their petty, private interest, for their looms and gardens, and knew nothing of the mighty movement which, beyond their horizon, was sweeping through mankind. They were comfortable in their silent vegetation, and but for the industrial revolution they would never have emerged from this existence, which, cosily romantic as it was, was nevertheless not worthy of human beings. In truth, they were not human beings; they were merely toiling machines in the service of the few aristocrats who had guided history down to that time. The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men. As in France politics, so in England manufacture and the movement of civil society in general drew into the whirl of history the last classes which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.
We need someone to write something as startling about the condition of the working people under advanced capitalism.
Lots of people are now paying attention to Marx (while Engels is mainly left out of the picture). I entitled this post “Let’s not Forget About Engels because I do think he deserves far more recognition as a thinker in his own right. I also think that his partnership with Marx was a wonderful thing and shows the importance of collaboration. He is also easier to read than Marx!
However it’s now over 150 years since the Commuinist Manifesto was published and until very recently, capitalism has mostly been going strong.
I don’t think Marx and Engels expected that – or that the bourgeois democratic revolution would still not have been completed on a large section of the planet. That requires some new analysis and thinking.