Tony Cliff


(July 1996)

Talk given at Marxism 1996 conference.
Published for the first time in Tony Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, Selected Works Vol. 1, Bookmarks, London 2001, pp. 117–32.
Transcribed by Artroom, East End Offset (TU), London.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I’ll start by saying that Engels said about himself that he was the second fiddle to Marx. To be honest with you, to be second fiddle to Marx is quite an achievement. Even to be fiddle 150 to Marx is an achievement! But I’ll argue that in fact Frederick Engels underestimated his contribution. In a way, he was very modest about himself. He was more than a second fiddle to Marx, and I will argue that he made a massive contribution, which added greatly to Marxism, and that he did this often independently of Marx and before Marx.

There is a simple way to test this out. Go through the collected works of Marx and Engels, and find out when the concept of the centrality of the working class first appeared in their writings. Was it Marx or someone else who first made this point? It was Engels, in a book he wrote in Paris in 1844 with the title The Condition of the Working Class [in England in 1844]. This book is a fantastic introduction to the role of the working class, not only in history, but in the future of society.

What is important for us to understand is that ideas such as are expressed in this book do not develop in libraries. You must be dreaming if you think that great ideas are created there. The truth of the matter is that, as Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, Communists generalise the historical and international experience of the working class. That means you have to develop ideas from this experience of the class.

Here is an example of how the process works. In The Communist Manifesto of 1848, ideas about what will happen after the socialist revolution are very vague. It talks about the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it does not tell you what the dictatorship of the proletariat will look like. Then, in 1871, Marx writes another little book in which he says that under the dictatorship of the proletariat there will be no bureaucracy, no standing army, that all officials will be elected and will all be subject to the right of recall, that they will earn the wage of the average worker, etc. You might say to yourself, “This shows that Marx has been working very hard in the British Museum. In 1848 he said nothing like this, but in 1871 he does!” Not at all. His views in 1871 were shaped by the Paris Commune of that year, which was a fact of life. The workers of Paris created their Commune without bureaucracy, without a standing army, and so on.

Returning to Engels’ discovery of the centrality of the working class – in this, Engels had an advantage over Marx. The advantage was that he lived in Britain before Marx came here, and it was here that the first working class mass movement in the world – the Chartist movement – appeared. You do not study this at school, of course. What you are taught is that revolution is foreign to Britain. It is the Russians that kill Tsars. It is the French that guillotine kings. Don’t mention Charles I! Revolution is supposed to be a foreign phenomenon, and therefore the Chartist experience is not mentioned.

But it was in Britain, in 1842, that the first general strike in history happened and, being able to witness it first hand, Engels was tremendously impressed. For example, one of the exciting things about the strike of 1842 was the idea of the flying picket. You may think that we invented it recently, or our generation invented it in the 1970s perhaps. Not at all. It was invented in 1842. They went from one factory to another. They called it turning the factory over, and they turned over industry across the land. It was a fantastic achievement at the time. So Engels’ book, The Condition of the Working Class, cannot be explained unless you remember that Engels knew the Chartists in Manchester, which was the centre of the 1842 general strike. But there is more to it than his simply being a witness to events.

When you look at the book he wrote you see some fantastic new ideas, things which today we take for granted. It is much easier to draw conclusions long after the events. You have to imagine that you were living in the 1830s or 1840s. Would you have had the same insights as Engels? Bearing this in mind, it becomes clear just what a magnificent book The Condition of the Working Class is.

First of all, you should remember that Engels was only 23 years old when he wrote it. And the important thing about it is not so much the descriptions of working class life, though these are very, very interesting. When he writes about working class life he does not adopt the same style as Charles Dickens, along the lines of, “Oh, the poor devils! Workers are suffering. Please, sir, can I have some more?” No – Engels’ style is exactly the opposite. There is fantastic optimism in it, and the workers appear, not as the victims of history, but as the subject of history, as the people who make history. I will give you a quote from The Condition of the Working Class to illustrate this:

The war of the poor against the rich, now carried on in detail and indirectly, will become direct and universal. It is too late for the peaceful solution. Soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion. Then indeed will the war cry resound throughout the land: “War on the palaces, peace to the cottages.” But then it will be too late for the rich to beware.

Engels also recognised the importance of trade unions. Many people think today that the trade unions are simply workers’ organisations which try to improve conditions. Now, under Blair’s influence, it may seem even worse – that unions are workers’ organisations that sell out the workers to the employers. The union leaders might not talk openly like that, but in their hands unions are for compromise, compromise, compromise. Engels saw it very differently, because even though it was only at the beginning of trade unionism he could see their potential. In 1844 he already spoke in these terms: “As schools of war the unions are unexcelled.” For him the unions were schools of war, not schools for compromise. The aim was not to achieve some little gain and stop there, because in a war there is a very simple rule – one side or another wins. The unions, in Engels’ view, are a weapon of war. Lenin, many years afterwards, used the phrase, “Unions are schools of communism.”

Remember that Engels was writing in these terms before he met Marx. To say that Engels recognised the centrality of the working class before Marx is not a criticism of Marx at all. After all, where was Marx living at the time? Has anyone had the good luck to visit his home town of Trier recently? The largest workplace there is probably Marx’s house! In contrast to Marx, Engels was in Britain, which at that time was the workshop of the world, and Manchester was the centre of the industrial revolution. So it is absolutely natural that this idea came first from Engels.

Another point about ideas is that you cannot patent them. You cannot say who was the first one, the originator of a great idea, because ideas are like a river and a river is formed from lots of streams. Engels is one of the streams contributing to Marxism. Therefore I don’t like the idea of speaking of him as secondary to Marx, because then he is not seen as an independent stream contributing to the overall Marxist movement. But I am happy, by the way, to call ourselves Marxists, because it is much easier to pronounce than Engelsists!

There is sometimes a difference between the work of Marx and Engels, though. If you compare the two men’s writings you will find that, while Engels was often the pioneer, Marx went much deeper. I am not trying to put it that Marx simply plagiarised from Engels. That is not true at all. Engels was the pioneer because of his experiences in England, but Marx went beyond – he developed things further.

Take, for example, the definition of communism. How did Engels define it? He wrote the following, using a style that is tremendously compressed and extremely simple (much simpler than Marx’s):

Communism: (1) to ensure that the interests of the proletariat prevail as opposed to those of the bourgeoisie. (These are clear class terms.) (2) to do so by the abolition of private property and replacing the same with community of goods. (3) to recognise no means of obtaining these aims other than democratic revolution by force.

Everything you need for a definition of communism is there. It is achieved by revolutionary force, and is democratic by force, not simply some bloody coup by 50 people who take power from another 50 people.

This definition is very important. And when he explains why we need a revolution, he says that we need a revolution for two reasons. First of all, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fit to found society anew.” We come from a class society, and we have a fantastic amount of filth in our heads. The prevailing ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, and the ideas of the ruling class dominate everything.

It is not only the obvious and open ideas that influence us. It is not difficult to notice that racism is a bad idea, that it is reactionary. Ruling class ideas affect elementary things. I remember an occasion years back when my daughter was aged seven or eight. She would argue with me. I don’t remember what the issue was about. Then she said, “You must be right.” “Why must I be?” I asked. “Because you are older than me, therefore you are cleverer than me.” So I said, “Alright, so I am cleverer than you. You will be cleverer than your child. So people will become more and more stupid!” Now this idea that the old are better than the young and must be obeyed – that is a hierarchy. It comes from the structure of our society. People don’t notice it.

Take the idea that there must be rich and poor. It is said, “Of course there are rich and poor; there have always been rich and poor.” How many working class mothers say to their children, “Your father is a worker, your grandfather was a worker, you will be a worker, your children will be workers. There are always rich and poor”? And the conclusion is nothing can be done about it. Somehow the rich must be more talented.

I remember my father used to say to me, “I can sign my name in nine languages.” That was true. “But the cheques always bounce.” And then someone who has no abilities can come along and sign a cheque with a cross, but it will pass.

The fact that the prevailing ideas in our society are the ideas of the ruling class means that we cannot get rid of them except through a creative act, the act of revolution. If you think about the revolution as a coup, a tiny minority replacing a tiny minority, with 50 generals being kicked out by another 50 generals at the top, then the masses can remain with the same ideas and the revolution will still happen. But if you speak about the emancipation of the working class being the act of the working class, then we are not fit to bring in the new society until the masses change their ideas. Moses had to take the Israelites for 40 years into the desert to cleanse themselves from the old ideas of the past. Lenin would go on to say that “in one day of revolution workers learn more than in a century.”

So Engels’ idea was that workers need the revolution to get rid of the rubbish in their heads. Only when they fight in the revolution, when they are active in the revolution, do they find the power of the collective and gain the feeling that they do not need anybody to look up to. When someone asks me to sum up this concept, I mention a little story in John Reed’s book Ten Days that Shook the World. This shows the impact of the Russian Revolution beautifully. Trotsky, the Chair of the Soviet of Petrograd, came to the building of the Soviet and there were two workers checking entry permits. (At this time there was a danger of counter-revolutionaries throwing hand grenades, and so on.) So Trotsky came there, and he looked in his jacket and said, “I am very sorry, but I don’t have the permit, but I am Trotsky.” And the chap said, “I don’t care who you are.” That is workers’ power. You need a revolution for someone to dare to say to John Major at the gates of 10 Downing Street, “I don’t give a damn who you are.” This would mean real workers’ power. Therefore the idea of Engels, that the revolution is needed for the workers to change themselves, is a fantastic idea.

A few other things about Engels himself. You should know that although on the title page of The Communist Manifesto it says that it is written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in reality it was written by Marx. But there was a first draft of the Manifesto, and Engels wrote this. It is called Principles of Communism. Now it is extremely exciting to compare the two drafts. This is because there are a number of questions that are to be found in Principles of Communism that are not in The Communist Manifesto.

For example, there is one question dealt with exclusively in Principles of Communism: can we reach socialism in one country? This is a question that 80 or 90 years later practically led to a bloodbath between Stalin and Trotsky. Engels asks the question, and he answers that, of course, socialism in one country is not possible, because the world is an international economy, and so on. When you look at Principles of Communism it gives you a notion of Engels’ contribution. All the ideas in The Communist Manifesto are already there, put very clearly, very simply, and in not as grand a style. When you look at Marx, you have a sense that he paints for us a fantastic mural, a fantastic big picture. When you look at Engels, you see a smaller picture. But the same basic ideas are there.

A few other points – the question of permanent revolution. All of us talk about Trotsky the teacher, the founder of the theory of permanent revolution. And this is absolutely true, except that long before Trotsky, in 1848, Engels wrote about the permanent revolution. He wrote first of all that the bourgeoisie is cowardly, and the more you go to the East, the more cowardly it is. The English bourgeoisie dared to cut off the head of the king. The French bourgeoisie was also confident enough to cut off the head of a king.

Why was the bourgeoisie more cowardly the further you went to the East? Because they arrived on the scene later (as industry developed there later). Capitalist production was now organised in the form of big productive units with a powerful working class. The bourgeoisie in the 19th century could now see the shadow of this new class. The bourgeoisie in 17th century Britain did not ask itself, “If we dare to make a revolution will the proletariat rise against us also?” There was no danger of the proletariat rising. The same was true in the French Revolution. Workers did not go on strike. There were riots about food, riots about prices, but there was no concentration of workers in factories.

Engels writes the following about the bourgeoisie: “Your reward shall be a brief time of rule. You shall dictate laws, you shall bask in the sun of your own majesty, you shall banquet in the royal halls, and woo the king’s daughter, but remember, the hangman’s boot is on the threshold.” This is a fantastic way of describing what the permanent revolution is all about. The bourgeoisie in the 19th century has become too cowardly to carry its own revolution against feudalism, because it sees behind its shoulders the threat of the working class.

Another point: what is the full name of Marx’s Capital? If you haven’t read it all, you may have read the front page. Its subtitle is A Critique of Political Economy. Now that is very interesting. In 1846 Engels wrote a small pamphlet on A Critique of Political Economy. It is true it is not nearly as grand as Capital. Marx spent 26 years writing this work and he did a massive amount of research. Engels’ pamphlet is nothing like that. But still many of the basic ideas are there – for example the difference between constant and variable capital, exploitation, surplus value, the theory of rent, and so on.

I hate the notion that people think Engels was simply a nobody who followed Marx. The sad thing about Engels was that he was always so modest when it came to Marx. He was so devoted to Marx. You cannot imagine his devotion. It is proved by the fact that, despite all his instincts, he worked as a factory manager for most of his life. It was not that he liked that role at all. He did not believe in class harmony on the lines of “leave us together, workers with managers”, but personally he was a factory manager. His family owned a factory in Manchester and they told him to run it. He hated it every day, every week, every month. He bloody hated it, and you know why he did it? Only for one reason. He did it for Marx, because Marx never earned anything in his life. His mother was absolutely right when she asked him, “Why the hell do you write a book about capital – why don’t you make some capital?” Marx never made any capital. Engels simply supplied the money for his family, for his children, for years and years. When Marx died, it was not that Engels was happy, but he probably gave a sigh of relief because now he could give up managing the factory. He did not want to work in this bloody horrible job.

Not only was his sacrifice absolutely astonishing, the situation also brought out his modesty. Don’t tell it outside this room, but when Marx had an illegitimate child, Engels pretended to be the father in order not to hurt Marx’s wife. Today we might see such an action as bloody stupid, as an example of 19thcentury backwardness. But that is beside the point.

Now I want to make another thing clear. We always talk about historical materialism as the unique contribution of Marx, and so on. But you find this formulation in Engels:

History does nothing. It possesses no immense wealth. It wages no battles. It is man, real, living, man, who does all that, who possesses and fights. History is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims. History is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.

Yet quite often people accuse Engels of being a determinist!

To be honest with you, if I know something is predetermined I would do nothing, because if socialism is inevitable I would sit with folded arms and smile: “Socialism is coming!” So you don’t have to do anything about it. You do not have to open the door to history. It will make its own way. Conversely, if I think that the victory of fascism is inevitable, I tell you straight, I will not sit with folded arms, but I would lie on the bed and hide myself underneath the blanket and cry. In both cases I would do nothing. But Engels formulates it absolutely correctly. History is what human beings are doing. It is not French history that stormed the Bastille, it was men and women who stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789. It is not history that made the Russian Revolution, it was Russian workers and Russian soldiers who made the Russian Revolution.

This is the meaning of historical materialism: that the subject of history is human beings, but they are acting in conditions independent of themselves. There is no question about it – I speak English. Perhaps you don’t believe it, but I did not invent the English language. I distort it perhaps a little bit, but English is independent from me. It is not English speaking to you, it is not the language, some mystical thing that speaks to you. No. It is I speaking to you, in broken English, but it is me, part of the active subject of history. That is very important in Engels’ formulation.

Today there are some people who have tried to present a picture of Marx being in opposition to Engels. They do this because they want to separate theory from practice. This has happened at other times. During the battle between Stalin and Trotsky, so long as Stalin was alive, the Communist movement by and large supported Stalin. Every time Stalin had a cold and sneezed, the international movement took out the handkerchief. But once Stalin was exposed after his death the same people decided, “We cannot identify with Trotsky (even though Trotsky did fight against Stalin). We must find somebody who is not a Stalinist but also not a Trotskyist.” They looked carefully around, and they were lucky. There was a man in an Italian prison and, of course, because he was in prison he could not be very active in the daily battle. This man was Gramsci. So they put up Gramsci as the example to follow, as if to say, “We are not Stalinists, we are not Trotskyists, we are Gramsciites!”

They have tried to do the same with Marx and Engels. It is very difficult to attack Marx, so instead they look for differences between him and Engels. They notice that Engels was the man of practice and so they say that Marx was not – he was a theorist. They say they agree with Marxism, but in their world Marxism is only abstract. It is Volume Three of Capital, about the analysis of the transformation of surplus value into the average rate of profit. They are much more interested in the arithmetic, in the maths, than they are interested in the struggle. This is how they distinguish between Marx and Engels. Yet Marx and Engels were like two peas in a pod. You cannot split them in terms of ideas. Engels fed Marx intellectually, and Marx fed Engels.

Even so, in some areas Engels did make a contribution that stands quite independently from Marx. Take, for example, his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written in 1884 (in other words one year after Marx’s death). This is a fantastic contribution, because he tackles a new subject. He uses anthropology – what was known at the time from Morgan and others. He goes to the new area and asks a simple question: what about personal relations? What about the family? What about relations between men and women? Are they eternal?

People often think, “Yes, things change. For example, slavery existed – now there is no slavery but wage labour instead.” They may see that many other things change. But human interpersonal relations are somehow independent and above change. Human nature is something fixed. Engels made it absolutely plain that human nature is part of the historical condition. To put it in a very simple way – look at the question of greed. I come from Palestine. In Palestine nobody would have left milk outside the house after the milkman came. It is not because the weather is so hot that the milk will turn sour, but because people will steal it. Now in Britain, if someone comes and knocks on the door to deliver a TV and finds there is no one there, he will not leave the TV. Yet the milkman leaves the milk. So you say that it is human nature to steal TVs, but it is not human nature to steal milk. It is nothing to do with human nature – it is the circumstances. Milk is cheap – there is a lot of milk, relatively. There are not a lot of TVs. When Engels came to look at the family, at the relations of the family, he explained, basically, that it is rooted in class society. The condition of what we call the family is private property, and all the transformations in the family are affected by this. He showed this brilliantly in his little book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

The last couple of points are these. What I have talked about up to now is mainly about Engels’ ideas, but you cannot speak about Engels without remembering that Engels was a man of action. You know what he was called in Marx’s family? He was called “The General”. Why was he called that? The answer is that while Marx was writing many marvellous articles (during 1848), and so on, it was Engels who was there on the barricades. It was Engels who was fighting in the army. It was Engels, the man of action. And for the rest of his life he was a man of action.

Quite often, because he was a man of action, he lacked the clear picture that Marx gained through having been a little bit distant from events. I am not saying that theory develops just in direct relation to action. If you have a too direct relationship to the action, you do not have the distance. Marx had that distance; Engels sometimes missed it. For example, during the American Civil War, the fight between the North and the South, Engels thought that the South was going to win. Why did he think this? He put forward a whole number of reasons: the South was better organised (that is true); all the army colleges, like Sandhurst in Britain, were in the South; the best generals were in the South; the best officers were in the South; and there is no question that the South, to begin with, was doing better than the North. Yet Marx said, no question about it, the North is going to win. Why? Because wage labour is more productive than slave labour. Full stop! That is the first thing that you can notice. Therefore New York is more advanced than Texas, and therefore the North is going to win. Not only this. Look at the most oppressed section of society – the black slaves. Where did they run to and where were they running from? Did they head from the North to the South, or from the South to the North? From the South to the North. They preferred the North. So despite all Engels’ technical military expertise Marx was right about the war, while Engels was wrong.

What is the point of this discussion? The worst thing in the world is hagiography. To come and say Engels knew everything, that he was always right – that makes me absolutely sick. It is just as bad to say Marx was absolutely right always. Think about what was written about Lenin in Russian history books under Stalin. Not only was Lenin always right, his father was such a militant, such a progressive! The truth was that his father was knighted by the Tsar. And when Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, what do you think Lenin’s father did? He went to church to pray for the soul of the Tsar. But people who go along with hagiography cannot admit to this because saints must be born from saints. If you read the New Testament, what does it tell you? This one begat that one and the last one begat Jesus. Everyone’s begatting. Therefore I don’t want people to come away from this meeting thinking that Tony Cliff said Engels was marvellous, and that he never made a mistake. That would be rubbish.

One good thing about Engels is that he was very active. This was when Marx was alive and, even more important, after Marx died. Between 1883 and 1895, the 12 years when he was on his own, you read again and again that revolutionaries and trade unionists from all over the world were contacting Engels to ask for advice. And Engels was absolutely generous in giving that advice. He was involved in the French socialist movement, in the German, in the Russian and, of course, in the British – in every mass movement.

He was not only an internationalist in word. He was an internationalist in practice, and you can see it from what he was reading. I have the list of what he read every day. He looked at seven daily papers, three in German, two in English, one Austrian, one Italian, and 19 weeklies in a variety of languages. Now Engels himself knew 29 languages. To read a language is much easier than to speak it. I do not say that Engels knew how to speak 29 languages, but he could read them, because he wanted to know what was happening. He wanted to know what the Russians were doing. There were only a few Russian socialists at the time, and you could not follow the movement unless you read Russian. So he studied Russian specially for that. Now that is an achievement.

His contribution and his devotion to the cause were absolutely astonishing. These can be summed up in Engels’ own words. This was his speech at Marx’s grave:

For Marx was above all else a revolutionary. His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being. Fighting was his element.

Now these words are exactly the words that fit Frederick Engels. Engels was a fighter. He was not an abstract scientist. His science was simply a weapon in the fight for socialism. The idea of unity of theory and practice is not, as it is sometimes presented, that someone writes a book – that is theory; and you read the book – that is practice. No. The unity of theory and practice is the unity of theory with the class struggle.

I can never understand the idea that is put forward that the party teaches the class. What the hell is the party? Who teaches the teacher? The dialectic means there is a two-way street. Theory by itself is absolutely useless. Practice by itself is blind. Of course in reality practice precedes theory. Before Newton found the law of gravitation apples used to fall. Afterwards he found the theory to explain how apples fell. Practice always precedes the theory, but theory always fructifies the practice.

Therefore we are not simply practical people. We are not simply theoretical people. We are theoretical-practical. But we believe that the most important thing is the practice. Judge our activity in terms of its practical results, both immediately and in the long term. Practice is the judgement of us. Don’t support us because you like us. Put us to the test. Put yourself to the test, because the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. In practice you have to provide effective practice in the Unison strike in Sheffield libraries, or in other struggles in Britain and elsewhere. Theories are no use at all except in relation to the class struggle.

I will end with a very good story from Heinrich Heine. Heine was a poet and he wrote a little piece called The Dream of Professor Marx. By the way, you should know that it is not Karl Marx that he is referring to, because when Heine wrote it he did not know that there was someone called Karl Marx, and anyway, the latter was still in his shorts. The story is that Professor Marx dreamed about a garden, and in the garden he sees beds. And in these beds it is not flowers that are growing but quotations. And you take the quotations from one bed and put them into another. This was the dream of Professor Marx.

Now that was not the dream of Frederick Engels or Karl Marx. Their dream was not that theory led to theory, theory led to theory, theory encouraged praxis (by the way, that is a very good word because you can impress somebody with it). No, that is a lot of rubbish. The issue is how theory can be related to the struggle in the unions at present; how it relates to the struggle against fascism at present; how it relates to the struggle against unemployment at present; how it relates to war in Chechnya at present. In other words, Marxism is always a guide to action, and above all Engels was a practical man.

Last updated on 8 November 2019