Revolutionary Friedrich Engels at 200

Nov 28, 2020

Marx and Engels statue in Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Today the world is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels, renowned across the globe as one of the greatest revolutionaries and theorists to ever live. Engels, who along with Karl Marx founded the modern communist movement, was born on November 28, 1820 in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia. He dedicated his life to the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to free itself from capitalism and usher in a new era of history.

Beyond the key documents he co-authored with Marx, Engels’ work has stood the test of time as an essential guide for successive generations of revolutionaries who want to understand the world in order to change it. Take for example these visionary words written in Chapter 9 — “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” — of his 1883 work , Dialectics of Nature:

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture.”

Engels displayed in this and all of his works a prescient ability to identify the most important trends and tendencies governing the development of human society.

Engels did not simply write about revolution, he was an active and heroic participant in it. He noted in 1850, “The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act.” Engels knew that it was the working class in thousands and millions that were the true makers of history, and needed to be equipped with revolutionary theory to wage a victorious struggle.

When the people took to the barricades and rose up against the ruling class, Engels was an active participant, not a commentator from the sidelines. When revolution swept his home country and much of the rest of Europe in 1848-49, Engels took up arms. After one battle serving in the army of August Willich, who would go on to become a General in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War, Engels barely escaped with his life and managed to flee to Switzerland. 

On the bicentenary of his birth, Friedrich Engels remains a towering figure in the history of the struggle for socialism.

Read more from the works of Friedrich Engels and his life-long collaborator Karl Marx here.