Friedrich Engels (1820)
It was on this date, September 28, 1820, that German political philosopher and Socialist leader Friedrich Engels was born in Barmen, Prussia. His father ran a factory in Manchester, in the north of England, and sent him there as a young man to gain management experience. But Engels was shocked at the squalid life of the poor workers. Before he was 24 he had published his observations in his 1844 Condition of the Working Classes in England.
Engels began contributing to a radical journal called Franco-German Annals. The editor of that journal, Karl Marx, met with Engels in Paris and the two men became lifelong friends – in fact, they were both such severe critics of 19th century capitalism, that Engels wrote that they were in “complete agreement in all theoretical fields.” This would, of course, include religion. In his review of the scholarship of philosopher, historian, and theologian Bruno Bauer, Engels wrote of Christianity,
A religion that brought the Roman world empire into subjection, and dominated by far the larger part of civilized humanity for 1,800 years, cannot be disposed of merely by declaring it to be nonsense gleaned together by frauds. … The question to be solved, then, is how it came about that the popular masses in the Roman Empire so far preferred this nonsense – which was preached, into the bargain, by slaves and oppressed – to all other religions…*
Kicked out of Paris, Prussia and even Belgium, Engels financially supported Marx and his family in London. Combining their respective talents – Marx at explaining abstract concepts, Engels at targeting the masses – the two produced many works between them, most notably the Communist Manifesto, in February 1848. The manifesto articulated their critique of rampant capitalism and the principles of its remedy, socialism, with which the working class would encourage the State to wither away. Between them, Engels and Marx founded Socialism in Europe.
Marx had been reared in a heterodox Jewish atmosphere, but Engels’ childhood included strict religious instruction, so Engels was more hostile toward churches. To him, all political oppression, where it did not emanate from the clergy, emanated from a political structure controlled or influenced by the clergy. As he wrote in The Peasant War in Germany,
[B]ishops and archbishops, abbots, priors and other prelates… not only exploited their subjects as recklessly as the knighthood and the princes, but they practiced this in an even more shameful manner. They used not only brutal force, but all the intrigues of religion as well; not only the horrors of the rack, but also the horror of excommunication, or refusal of absolution; they used all the intricacies of the confessional in order to extract from their subjects the last penny, or to increase the estates of the church.**
The result of the 1525 revolt, summarizes Engels:
The class that suffered most from the Peasant War was the clergy. … [T]he weight of the people’s old hatred fell heaviest upon them. The other estates, princes, nobility and the middle-class, even experienced a secret joy at the sufferings of the hated prelates. The Peasant War had made popular the secularization of the church estates in favor of the peasants.†
After Karl Marx died, in London in 1883, Engels devoted himself to editing and translating Marx’s writings, including the unfinished volumes of Das Kapital. Friedrich Engels died in London on 5 August 1895. In his 1918 Reminiscences, British Atheist and Socialist Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew the writer, calls Engels a “devout atheist.”
* Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity, published in the 4-11 May 1882 issue of Sozialdemokrat.
** The Peasant War in Germany, chapter 1, 2nd Ed., 1870 (written in London, 1850), published in Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue; translated by Moissaye J. Olgin, 1926.
† ibid, chapter 7.
Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.