Friedrich Engels Was an Entitled Jerk

Nice cravat.

Prussian louse Friedrich Engels, you probably recall from an ornery high school history teacher pining for his resurrection, was one of the fathers of communism. That’s a common way to describe Engels, but it’s even more accurate when you recall that Engels bankrolled the perpetually financially floundering Karl Marx. They did co-author The Communist Manifesto together, but the relationship seemed, more or less, to be one in which Engels constantly made donations to the Karl Marx Charity Fund.

Would it surprise you to learn that Engels was more or less a rich jerk who did not understand the value of work?

That seems to have been precisely the case. The blog of the Smithsonian has a nice piece on Engels just now, titled “How Friedrich Engels’ Radical Lover Helped Him Father Socialism.”

Engels came, of course, from a wealthy family. The Engels in question are the Engels of the Ermen & Engels Co., a large manufacturer of cotton. The young Friedrich Engels was sent to the office in Manchester. The whole business of finding a job and competing based upon the usefulness of one’s labor, he did not try. Engels quickly divined a nice way of getting ahead. He accused his father’s business partner (the aforementioned Ermen) of fraud. Karl Marx’s wife Jenny thought this was a great idea. “Get yourself firmly entrenched between the two hostile brothers,” she wrote to Engels in February 1851. “Their enmity gives you the opportunity to make yourself indispensable to your worthy papa. In my mind’s eye I can already see you as Friedrich Engels, junior, a partner of Friedrich Engels senior.” Oh, Lady Macbeth!

Engels did just that, and was soon part owner of the cotton company. “As part-owner of the mill, he eventually received a 7.5 percent share in Ermen & Engels’ rising profits, earning £263 in 1855 and as much as £1,080 in 1859–the latter a sum worth around $168,000 today.” Where did that money go?

He also offered financial support to a number of less-well-off revolutionaries—most important, Karl Marx, whom he had met while traveling to Manchester in 1842. Even before he became relatively wealthy, Engels frequently sent Marx as much as £50 a year—equivalent to around $7,500 now, and about a third of the annual allowance he received from his parents.

Engels enjoyed an allowance from his parents too! So here we have a chap whose only work experience is to be given a job, and then to connive his way into a senior job, at a cotton refinery. By the bye, what would Engels have done if he had even more money. Given it, perhaps, all over to Karl Marx? Ha, ha, no.

The Friedrich Engels of the 1840s was a gregarious young man with a facility for languages, a liking for drink and a preference for lively female company. “If I had an income of 5,000 francs,” he once confessed to Marx, “I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces.”

Engels wanted to continue foxhunting, and wanted to duck the Prussian police (which is why his father forced him to work in the first instance), so “[f]ew of Engels’ contemporaries knew of this hidden life.” “[F]ewer still,” the Smithsonian reports, “were aware of Mary Burns.”

That Engels’ relationship with Mary had a sexual element may be guessed from what what might be a lewd phrase of Marx’s; taking in the news that Engels had acquired an interest in physiology, the philosopher inquired: “Are you studying…on Mary?” Engels did not believe in marriage—and his correspondence reveals a good number of affairs—but he and Burns remained a couple for almost 20 years. […]

Engels seems to have acknowledged Mary, at least to close acquaintances, as more than a friend or lover. “Love to Mrs Engels,” the Chartist Julian Harney wrote in 1846. Engels himself told Marx that only his need to maintain his position among his peers prevented him from being far more open: “I live nearly all the time with Mary so as to save money. Unfortunately I cannot manage without [private] lodgings; if I could I would live with her all the time.”

They traveled and had multiple houses, along with rental income.

There were lodgings in Burlington and Cecil Streets (where the Burns sisters appear to have earned extra money by renting out spare rooms), and in 1862 the couple and Lizzie [Mary’s sister] moved into a newly built property in Hyde Road (the street on which the Manchester Martyrs would free Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy five years later).

Engels appears to have driven Mary to drink.

In her 20s, Eleanor Marx recorded, Mary “had been pretty, witty and charming…but in later years [she] drank to excess.”…When Burns died, on January 6, 1863, she was only 40.

At which point Friedrich Engels began sleeping with Mary’s sister, Lizzie.

He lived with Mary’s sister for 15 more years. Whether their relationship was as passionate as the one Engels had enjoyed with Mary may be doubted, but he was certainly very fond of Lizzie Burns; just before she was struck down by some sort of tumor in 1878, he acceded to her dying wish and married her. “She was of genuine Irish proletarian stock,” he wrote, “and her passionate and innate feelings for her class were of far greater value to me and stood me in better stead at moments of crisis than all the refinement…of your educated…young ladies.”

Nice guy.

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