Friedrich Engels and the England of the 1840s

W.O. Henderson and W.H. Chalonert describe how it was from incomplete evidence, and in a spirit of political prejudice, that Engels compiled his famous account of the condition of the British working-classes.

Few intellectual partnerships can have had such momentous results as that of Marx and Engels, the fathers of “scientific” socialism and communism. Although Friedrich Engels is not so well known as Karl Marx, he had a considerable influence upon the formation of Socialist doctrines, and he played a significant part in Socialist propaganda in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Engels’s first visit to England, which took place between November 1842 and August 1844, marked the climax of the formative period of his career, during which he was preparing himself for his life’s work as a Socialist agitator.

Engels’s apprenticeship in Manchester—for it was there that he spent nearly the whole of his time—was important for two reasons. First, he became well acquainted with the manufacturing districts, and collected the material from which he wrote, upon his return to Germany, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. This work established his reputation among Socialists as an expert upon the social consequences of modern industrialization.

Second, his study of political economy bore fruit in an article in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (Franco-German Yearbook) in 1844, which criticized Ricardo’s theory of ground-rent. When Marx first met Engels in Cologne in the autumn of 1842—Engels was then on his way to England for the first time—there were no signs of the future close friendship between the two young men.

Marx was apparently suspicious of Engels’s motives in approaching him, and this first meeting has been described as “cool, even unfriendly.” But when Engels saw Marx in Paris two years later—on Engels’s return from England—the meeting was much more cordial. Marx appears to have appreciated the extent of Engels’s intellectual development since their previous meeting and he was now ready to accept him as a collaborator.

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