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When was Friedrich Engels?

Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, and editor of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series. His most recent publications with Palgrave are Engels Before Marx (2020) and the 2014 volumes: A Political History of the Editions of Marx and Engels’s “German ideology” Manuscripts and Marx and Engels’s “German ideology manuscripts”: Presentation and Analysis of the “Feuerbach chapter” (both with Daniel Blank). He is also the author of the forthcoming The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels (2020).

Read the chapter “Imagination” from Engels Before Marx for free until 22nd July 2020.

When was Friedrich Engels?

The short answer is “now,” since 2020 is the bicentenary of Engels’s birth on November 28th, 1820. That anniversary was commemorated in February – fortunately enough –in his hometown of Wuppertal, in Germany. Further events there, and from Nanjing to Eastbourne (where his ashes were scattered into the sea), have been postponed owing to the pandemic. So “now” extends well into 2021.

Another answer is “during the last 120 years” since his death on August 5th, 1895, in London’s ever-fashionable Regent’s Park Road. Those were the years in which the persona “Engels” was established so that we could learn about “him.” Since then “who he was” has slipped all too easily into place: he was “second-fiddle” and “junior-partner” to Karl Marx.

The recent bio-pic of 2017 Le jeune Karl Marx (“The Young Karl Marx,” dir. Raoul Peck) brought that now familiar Engels to life on the big screen. In the drama he’s the bromantic supporting actor, side-kick to the main man. Young Friedrich arrives in Paris in late summer 1844 for the “meet-cute” moment, glowing with eagerness to touch the great man and get on with the plot.

Even when Engels himself is the biographical subject – quite a rare occurrence – the Marx-Engels partnership story is always the main interest. Engels, the “known-known,” suffocates whoever Friedrich was when he actually had a life. Tristram Hunt’s biography The Frock-coated Communist of 2010 captures quite a bit of real life, and amuses readers with class-contradictions, but even so Marx is a haunting specter throughout.

My answer to the question – and getting to a “known unknown” – is “1836 to early 1845,” the period in which the youthful Friedrich really had a life that was his own, and not Marx’s. From the published and archival records, it’s all there, and quite remarkably so. And equally remarkably, in that time-frame Marx doesn’t exist! Marx wasn’t on Engels’s mind then, because Engels hadn’t heard of him. Indeed young Karl wasn’t yet “Marx,” as we know “him” now, anyway. So there wasn’t anything for young Friedrich to hear about and to be impressed with.

In fact it was the other way around. Engels was already – starting in 1838 at age seventeen – a literary journalist and man of letters. Unsurprisingly, given censored publications and his tender years, his works were anonymous or pseudonymous. “Oswald” in various guises was well known in the flutter of fugitive feuilletons that circulated in what were, for the time, alternative and radical, small-press media.

One of these looked good to Engels, as a further suitable outlet, in the spring of 1842. The Rheinische Zeitung was a struggling paper in Cologne, where – as it happens, and among others – Marx was just learning the ropes. But their “meet” that November was not at all “cute,” and neither remarked on it at the time. In October Marx had become editor – he was the last man standing – but at that point Engels had published more in the paper than he had.

It was deductions of that kind which piqued my interest in the youthful Friedrich when I did a biographical study of his life and thought in 1990. That book is now reissued for its 30th anniversary with a new introduction, reflecting what has changed – politically and intellectually – to make him look different today in 2020.

We don’t see those iconic twin grey-beard banners any more in East Berlin, because the GDR isn’t there any more, nor do we see the two on parade any more in Red Square, because the USSR isn’t there any more, either. And we don’t see that double-act all that often any more in Tiananmen Square, because the regime has moved on and left that iconography behind.

But when I wrote my book in the later 1980s all that duo-patriarchal apparatus was still in place. And Marx still controlled my narrative, even if Engels was coming up – at least in a youthful sprint – on the outside.

For 2020, though, I decided to do something different. Marx would not exist at all in the narrative, and we would see the world through Engels’s own eyes, starting from his family life and schooldays. After all, family life and schooldays were serious for him at the time, so why shouldn’t they be serious for us, too?

When Marx is the main interest for the reader, and Engels his intellectual love interest, then we’re already consigning the voluminous materials at our disposal to sub-sub-categories of juvenilia, experiments, immature thinking and rather embarrassing artworks in watercolor, pen-and-ink, and caricature. One of those happens to be a life-drawing of Franz Liszt, but then, that’s of course just an accident of the Zeitgeist.

But it wasn’t. From his schooldays young Friedrich’s Oedipal non-conformism was not just his own bit of Sturm und Drang. He connected his rebelliousness with the wider world of arts and letters, which sounds innocent enough. However, under the repressive, authoritarian, autocratic, neo-medieval German states and state-lets of the time, arts and letters were the barely tolerated and much persecuted vector for banned ideas and treasonous thinking.

The treason was constitutionalism. In the lands east of the Rhine there weren’t any constitutions, and the banned ideas promoted popular sovereignty. The French Revolution of 1830 – still freshly threatening to the horrified authorities – had succeeded just over the western borders, and it reignited fears of the “worst excesses” of sacrilege and regicide only forty years before. Young Friedrich learned the codes – literary criticism, musical invocation, and poetic licence – through which these ideas percolated in semi-clandestine fashion.

Other rebellious German teenagers of time were doubtless thinking these thoughts, and putting their futures in jeopardy. But how many actually published as much, got as much notoriety, pursued as many different controversies, went all the way to outcast atheism – and did it in English as well as German, reaching readers from Manchester to St Petersburg? Probably only one.

Engels Before Marx is a thematic celebration of that energy and talent, wholly at the service of the politics of the time – as much as politics could be said to have existed at all. The kings, electors, grand dukes, burghers of the free cities, prince-bishops and church hierarchies were all working tirelessly to ensure that the public had no opinion of its own.

My revivification of young Friedrich could only get going by removing Marx from the picture, though this has been hard work. Engels himself constructed his “junior partner” and “second fiddle” image and story-line, thus erasing his former life from view. Fortunately, though, early twentieth-century Marxists started collecting up the sacred relics and assembling the greater and lesser shrines. Buried under the lesser shrine is young Friedrich’s life and thought.

Engels Before Marx starts the narrative from the beginning, not from the Marx-over-Engels flashback, so it’s a memento of something that the later Engels remembered to forget (borrowing a few lines here from Christopher Nolan’s mesmerizing film). Through the materials that we have left – and there are a lot – I have tried to reimagine young Friedrich and his world when it was bliss to be alive, and very heaven – till he’s just turned twenty-four.