When Marx Met Engels, the Renegade Industrialist: Mary Gabriel

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Friedrich Engels had been traveling from England back home to Germany when he decided to make a slight detour in Paris.

Karl Marx knew him as the author of what he considered a brilliant piece on political economy written earlier in the year. The two met on Aug. 28, 1844, and talked for 10 straight days and as many nights.

At 23, Engels was tall, slim, blond, meticulous in his dress, and athletic. He loved women and horses. At his factory-owning father’s insistence, he had quit school when he was 17 to learn the family trade. A reckless bachelor who rode to hounds and had a gift for discerning good wine, he was also an impassioned revolutionary, who took a radical Irish factory girl as a live-in lover and even as a teenager wrote trenchant newspaper articles on the social evils resulting from unregulated industrialization in his native Barmen.

It was the revolutionary Engels who introduced himself to Marx that August, but Marx readily embraced both sides of this extraordinary character. Engels was a rare combination, a man of ideas and a reformer who could write articles of great eloquence and immediacy, but also a man of business who understood the social, political and economic ramifications of the new industrial system because he had lived it. He was an envoy from the material world, arrived at Marx’s door to fill the gaps in his theoretical studies.

Family’s Savior

Engels recognized in the 26-year-old Marx a powerful personality and intellect unlike any he had known. He would, quite simply, be the savior of the Marx family. He not only provided the material context for Marx’s work but also would provide the material sustenance for the family’s very existence.

Engels was the heir to a growing textile company begun in Prussia’s Wuppertal valley by his great-grandfather in the 18th century. In 1837 the Engels family had joined with the Ermen brothers in England to open cotton mills in Manchester, and Engels’s father sent his eldest son there for the next part of his training.

Manchester was considered the industrial heart of the world, and there was no better place for Engels to learn the business -- or for the other Engels, the revolutionary, to learn how to overthrow the system. When he arrived in November 1842, on the eve of his 22nd birthday, the town was recovering from a major workers’ strike.

Crossing Boundaries

One observer noted of Manchester at the time: “There is no town in the world where the distance between rich and poor is so great, or the barriers between them so difficult to be crossed.” Engels soon did so, however, with the help of a 19-year-old Irishwoman named Mary Burns, who worked in his factory.

Burns introduced him to the city’s working-class districts, where Engels said the filth and stench were so bad it would be “impossible for a human in any degree civilized to live in such a district.” Engels concluded that the only difference between slaves and factory workers was that slaves were sold for life, while the workers sold themselves day by day.

By 1843, his education on the street had been augmented by a thorough reading of English economics, politics and history. The result was his 25-page “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” which was published in early 1844.

That article was perhaps the earliest “Marxist” indictment of the still nascent capitalist system. Engels wrote that those who owned the machines created economic and social chaos by engaging in a cycle of overproduction followed by cutbacks, which forced wages lower, triggered social crisis and inflamed class conflict. Labor-saving advances did not ease the plight of the worker, but only increased profits.

By the time they met in 1844, Marx and Engels had reached the same conclusions. They agreed the best way forward was through propaganda. Engels planned to return to Germany to write a book on his time in England (it would become the classic “Condition of the Working Class in England”), while Marx would begin a book on political economy.

In early January 1845, however, the French interior minister issued an order giving select members of the Vorwarts! newspaper staff, including Marx, 24 hours to leave Paris. His wife, Jenny, wanted to stay, and the expulsion order offered just that possibility, if those named signed a statement promising they would engage in no further political activities. Marx refused, and on Feb. 2 he left Paris for Belgium, where Jenny joined him a short while later.

She did not know that this would be only the first of many such moves. The Marx family’s life on the run had begun.

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There seemed to be a curse on Europe in 1845. Bad grain harvests and a potato blight that had begun in Ireland spread to the Continent, devastating food supplies. Rural populations were faced with the wrenching decision of leaving all they had ever known for strange new homes among strange new people, as tens of thousands chose to emigrate. More than 100,000 moved to the U.S. alone in 1845, the first in a series of record-breaking years for such immigration.

But most of those who abandoned their fields descended on Europe’s increasingly overcrowded urban centers. Food shortages increased as the number of these small farmers dwindled. Disease was rife. Crime, vice and child trafficking became boom industries, and the threat of riots grew as the agricultural depression deepened and spread.

Meanwhile, the gears of commerce shifted into overdrive. Europe’s population had grown by nearly 40 percent since 1800, and industrialists worked as quickly as they could to supply that huge market. In the past, goods had been made to meet demand, but now the production process was so much cheaper and faster that manufacturers created their own markets, and if there were not enough local consumers to buy what they had to sell, they used the new railways and steamships to dispatch their products all over the world.

This mentality was especially prevalent in England, the most industrialized country in the world. Accelerated commerce did create jobs, but the new factories and expanded mines did not produce enough of them to satisfy the growing population, and they did not necessarily employ the men who had been forced to abandon long-held trades. Women and children were often the first to be hired, because they worked for a fraction of the cost of men. Further, the jobs created by the factories and mines did not provide the same of kind of security and stability for families that had worked for the same master or in the same trade or on the same land for generations. Now jobs were awarded and retained at the whim of a foreman. Conditions on the factory floor also had to be considered: Workers were haunted by the very real prospect of injury or death. With 12- to 18-hour workdays six and a half days a week, factory families lived to work and worked to survive.

The Ignored Masses

These unfortunates, and the millions like them who had yet to make their way into the industrial system, were far more numerous than the people who enjoyed its riches. But they were the most easily ignored -- they were a voiceless, powerless, leaderless, illiterate mass.

Yet in coffee shops and taverns and halls throughout Europe, artisans and intellectuals debated a myriad of social changes aimed at alleviating the plight of this proletariat.

Indeed the same easy transport that had helped expand commerce also helped spread ideas of reform. Literacy levels still ranked below 50 percent in most of Europe, but there was a hunger for knowledge. Books had become international, and authors like Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, who described society -- from the manor house to the gutter --in a new realistic style, were recognized as universal writers. Newspapers, too, moved more quickly from one capital to another, evading local censors.

Ideas Cross Borders

Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, were the traveling men and women who carried revolutionary notions in their heads and hearts. A cross-pollination began that saw French and American lessons of democracy transported all the way to St. Petersburg and the intricacies of English business debated in Milan. Throughout Europe a buzz of excitement greeted the new concepts of socialism and communism, which proponents said would correct social ills and rescue those left without food, shelter, or work due to disasters natural and man-made.

Demonstrations of discontent were rare in Europe at that time. But there had been the Silesian workers’ revolt the year before, and in late March 1845, 100 people were killed in Lucerne, Switzerland, when a simmering political-religious dispute erupted into violence.

To those calling for social reform such incidents were increasingly emblematic. Crowned heads around Europe also took note. Society was changing for them, too. Previous threats had come from other monarchs, with wars fought over land or honor or religion. The threat to a ruler could now arise from an enlightened nobility, a bourgeois intellectual or a shopkeeper wearing a blouse and red sash. Europe was headed into uncharted territory. The relatively simple social structure that had prevailed for centuries, in which the decisions of kings and princes went unchallenged and all members of a society were bound to (if not owned by) their betters, appeared increasingly battered. But what would replace it?

In fact, it was possible to visit the future of continental Europe. All it took was a trip across the English Channel. Engels had been there, and in the summer of 1845 he brought along a companion: Marx.

(Mary Gabriel is the author of the biographies “Notorious Victoria” and “The Art of Acquiring.” This is the third in a five-part series excerpted from her new book, “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,” published in September by Little, Brown & Co. Read Part 1 and Part 2, Part 4 and Part 5.)

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To contact the author of this story:
Mary Gabriel at mgabriel1883@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net