Engels was born in 1820 in Barmen, in the Rhineland, the eldest son of a prosperous mill owner whose father and grandfather had also owned textile mills. This was unusual in Germany--Barmen was one of the first areas in Germany to undergo thorough industrialization. Thus Engels was never unfamiliar with industrial life. His parents were strict Calvinist Pietists and Engels rebelled against their religion and way of life. It is recorded that as a child he often gave his savings to the poor. He attended a gymnasium but not university (the reasons for this are debated), and worked for his father’s firms in Barmen from 1837-38, and then for three years worked in an office in Bremen. Engels and his father were deeply opposed, yet Friedrich spent his life working in the Engels and Ermen cotton mills, and although his parents were outraged by his views they never ceased their financial support.

Engels displayed an early interest in literature, writing stories and poems which frequently included some reference to commerce. His first published writings were a series of “Letters from the Wuppertal” which appeared in 1839 in the Telegraph fur Deutschland; these anticipate several features of The Condition of the Working Class (Marcus, 77). Yet the “Letters” were largely devoted to attacking the middle class rather than describing the conditions of laborers; by the Condition the proportions had shifted. In 1841 Engels served for a year in the Prussian army, enabling him to live in Berlin and meet the Young Hegelians at the University of Berlin, where he listened to the lectures of Frederich Schelling, an anti-Hegelian philosopher, who also influenced Carlyle as well as Kierkegaard, Henry Burckhardt, and Bakunin. Engels wrote pamphlets attacking Schelling’s views and read Feuerbach’s Essences of Christianity, a socially liberal atheistic critique of Hegel, which along with Hegelian philosophy was to be a major influence on his ideas. During this period he was also influenced by Moses Hess, a member of the Left Hegelians who felt the study of French socialism and English economic theory was the next important requisite for political thought, and who prophesied that the social revolution would first occcur in England. (Engels did pursue the studies Hess suggested, and eventually he moved to England).

During this period Engels contributed articles to the Rheinische Zeitung (ed. Karl Marx) and Deutsche Jahrbucher. He first met Marx briefly in Cologne in 1842 en route to his father’s Manchester firm, where he lived for approximately two years working and collecting facts for The Condition of the Working Class. His Manchester Irish common-law partner Mary Burns was useful in aiding him in collecting material; he supported several members of her family and lived with her until her death in 1863. He returned to Barmen to write Condition in his native German, and it was published in a Germany in 1845. While in England he had actively joined Socialist activities and written numerous articles for several German and English periodicals, including that of Marx. In 1844 he again met Marx in Paris, and in 1845 he joined him there to begin what would be a life-long collaboration between Marx the post-Hegelian theorist and Engels the pragmatist, journalist, fact-gatherer and humanitarian. In 1845 he had written “Outline of a Critique of Political Economy,” an important article summarizing his reading in British economists and, of course, indicating their deficiencies. Marx and he thus held very similar views before they began to collaborate.

Between 1845 and 1848 they wrote The Holy Family, first entitled A Critique of Critical Criticism, 1845, and The German Ideology (1845-46), and in 1848 they issued The Communist Manifesto. The first two of these were unpublished in their lifetimes but they continued undiscouraged, and seem never to have doubted the eventual efficacy of their labors. On behalf of the Brussels Correspondence Committee Engels visited Paris in 1846 and London in 1847, and during the revolutionary outbreaks of 1848 and 1849 was active wherever an insurgence occurred, and was evicted from several European countries. He even took part in the abortive Baden rising of 1849. His constant travel during this period contrasts with the twenty quiet years he spent after this in Manchester with his father’s firm. The end of the period of revolutions was a great disappointment for Engels, and all his life he awaited a recurrence of revolt.

Engels began work in his family's Manchester factory in part to support Marx’s family. Engels had read Carlyle’s Chartism and Past and Present (1847), and wrote a review essay on Past and Present. He was favorably disposed toward Carlyle since the latter served as a bridge between German and English literature (331 Condition, 105 Marcus, 109 ff.)

Brief Chronology of Later Life:

1851-52 wrote for New York Tribune
1860 father died
1864 became partner in firm Ermen and Engels
1864 establishment of First International in London
1867 first volume Das Kapital published
1869 Engels retired, lived in London until his death in 1895
1878 Anti-Duhring
1882 death of Karl Marx
1884 Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, major socialist-feminist text
1885 vol. II Das Kapital published
1887 edited English translation of Das Kapital, vol. I
1888 visited U. S. with Avelings (Eleanor Marx and her husband)
1893 honorary president of International Socialist Congress held at Zurich, visited Vienna and Berlin
1894 vol. III Das Kapital
1895 died


Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844

  1. According to the editors, what are some defects of Engels’ account? Can anything be said in his defense? (presents England of 1820s and 30s; gifted work for a young foreigner; the conditions he describes may have improved somewhat, but still were considered offensive by contemporary observers)
  2. What may have been some consequences of the fact that it was first published in German?
  3. What are some distinctive features of his account?
    (first to describe all kinds of workers and to attempt an interpretation of the causes of their condition; presents many recognizable features of urban life; provides a wealth of detail; his descriptions of Manchester life convince; views the plight of workers with emotion and empathy)
  4. What motivated Engels’ anger against the manufacturing classes? What was his own social position and occupation at the time of writing? Who was his closest ally and friend?
  5. How are Engels’ values basically different from those of Carlyle? Can you see parallels between his concerns and those of novelists of the 1840s? (Disraeli, Gaskell) What are differences in his approach? (like Carlyle, he uses a mythologized past to contrast with present, 10-11, cmp. Wordsworth, Gaskell; uses an impassioned, emotive style; desires a society of unified human beings, a community, not isolated competitors and opponents)
    (Engels’ central interest the uprising of workers, addresses workers directly; emphasizes the dichotomy of the two classes, 7)
  6. What seems to be Engels’ attitude toward the working class? (idealizes them by contrast with manufacturers, 8)
  7. Why does Engels believe conditions in England are especially important? (England is microcosm of world, 9, other nations will develop in a similar way)
  8. Does Engels feel respect for any aspects of industrialization? Would you describe his attitude as ambivalent? (feels basic respect for industrial progress and urbanization as responses to material circumstances, 12, 30; believes the industrial revolution has caused the greatest shift in history, 23-24)
  9. What is Engels’ response to the city of London? (30-31, great statement on human isolation, competition, 88)
  10. What are some of the evils he attributes to industrial society?
    • isolation, competition, 31, 88
    • segregation of rich and poor, 33, 54
    • slum rentals, 35
    • no security from starvation, 37
    • squalid living conditions
    • lack of city planning
    • disease caused by squalor
    • adulterated food, deceptive selling practices
    • cycle of recession and boom--overproduction, lack of planning
  11. Do you think these charges were correct in 1844?
  12. To what does he look for social reform? Does he give evidence of the workers’ movement to which he alludes?
    (mythologizes about imminence of workers’ rebellion)
  13. Do you find this a basically gloomy book?
  14. What are features of Engels’ style?