Engels’s Politics: Strategy and Tactics after 1848


While Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Class is almost universally praised as an honest, insightful and indeed profound picture of working-class life in Manchester in the 1840s, much of the rest of his contribution to Marxism is typically dismissed as popularization that reduced Marx’s sublation of materialism and idealism to a warmed-over version of eighteenth-century materialism. What is more, it is this “Engelsian” Marxism that is said to have informed the mechanical and authoritarian interpretations of Marxist politics that became hegemonic on the twentieth-century left.1

Criticisms of Engels’s politics have a long pedigree. At the end of the nineteenth century, Eduard Bernstein famously argued that though Engels had in practice embraced modern, constructive, evolutionary and electoral politics he failed to theorize this break with the older destructive and insurrectionary form he and Marx had embraced in the 1840s. Bernstein imagined his own “revisionism” as an attempt to draw the logical theoretical conclusions from Engels’s mature political practice to update socialist theory to modern conditions.2

Though Bernstein’s critique of Marxism cannot bear critical scrutiny, something like his crude contrast between constructive and destructive or evolutionary and insurrectionary politics has tended to frame even some of the best twentieth-century academic interpretations of Marxism.3 But this way of framing the problem of socialist political practice begs the question. The necessity of insurrection is, with apologies to Edward Thompson, the ABC of Marxism with the B and C left out.4 As writers such as Hal Draper and Gerd Callesen have shown in relation to what Bernstein misleadingly called Engels’s political “testament”, his 1895 “Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggle in France”, Engels embraced a complex conception of revolutionary politics through which a multiplicity of tactics were integrated into a broader strategic perspective.5

In this essay I aim to complement Draper’s and Callessen’s arguments by framing Engels’s late works against the background of the sophisticated political interventions he made from the 1840s until the period immediately preceding the publication of his so-called “Testament”. My aim is to show both that the label insurrectionary fails adequately to capture his political perspectives over this period, but that his various tactical interventions over these decades were always framed against a broader revolutionary strategy of working-class self-emancipation.


The theoretical architecture of Engels’s approach to politics can usefully be understood in relation to Clausewitz’s distinction between strategy and tactics. According to Clausewitz, ‘tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war’:

The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accord with its purpose … he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide on the individual engagements … The strategist, in short, must maintain control throughout.6

Engels, who believed Clausewitz to be a ‘star of the first magnitude’,7 conceived revolutionary politics in similar terms. His dialectical approach to politics informed his ability to marry revolutionary strategy with extreme tactical flexibility.8 And his writings from this period evidence his keen ability to maintain a dialectical unity between strategy and tactics through concrete assessments of concrete situations.9 In relation to political opportunism he argued that the problem with the incipient reformist tendencies within the nineteenth-century German workers’ movement stemmed from the way their desire for quick victories in individual engagements meant that these politicians lost sight of the final strategic goal. This approach was, as he wrote in 1891, disastrous:

The forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be “honestly” meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and “honest” opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!10

Engels’s approach to politics was designed to steer a course that avoided the errors of opportunism on the one hand and abstract sectarianism on the other while all the time being informed by the maxim that “[t]he emancipation of the working class can be the work only of the working class itself”.11 So, while he was scathing in his criticisms of the “opportunism which is gaining ground in large sections of the Social-Democratic press”,12 he was if anything even more critical of those on the sectarian left who confused pseudo-radical posturing for real engagement in the movement from below: their “ruthless disregard of all the actual conditions of party struggle, a death-defying ‘surmounting of obstacles’ in the imagination, which may do all honour to the untamed youthful courage of the writers, but which, if transferred from the imagination to reality, would be sufficient to bury the strongest party of millions under the well-earned laughter of the whole hostile world”.13

These statements, which were all made in the last few years of Engels’s life, cohere with the political perspective he and Marx had developed in the 1840s.14 From this moment onwards they differentiated their approach to politics from other tendencies on the left not primarily through their belief in the necessity of an insurrection to overthrow the old order but rather through their claim that insurrections would be necessary moments in a broader revolutionary process of working-class self-emancipation. This perspective was most clearly outlined in The German Ideology, in which they argued that though “the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way” but by means of an insurrection, revolution was best understood as a process through which the working class became fit to rule: “because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.15 This processual model of revolution is significant because it underpinned an interventionist politics that cannot be reduced either to evolutionism or insurrectionism.16


The conception of politics Marx and Engels elaborated in The German Ideology emerged in large part through their attempt to renew socialism in the wake of Max Stirner’s devastating anarchist critique of German True Socialism. Stirner had shown that the True Socialists’ abstract moral conception of socialism very easily morphed into what might be called a moralistic proto-totalitarianism. Marx and Engels’s response to this charge was to emancipate socialism from abstract idealism and to reimagine its ethical core as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.17 Indeed, from then onwards, as Draper points out, they rarely used the abstract words socialism or communism to describe their goal, but rather insisted upon using the much more concrete term workers’ power or one of its synonyms.18

The political implications of this new approach were first formulated by Engels in his On the Constitutional Question in Germany (1847). The Prussian King had summoned a Diet to raise taxes in response to growing economic hardship. In return for their monies, the bourgeoisie demanded liberal reforms from the King. Parallels with 1789 were obvious. Unfortunately, the True Socialists dismissed the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the absolutist state because, as they saw it, the French Revolution had merely changed the form of exploitation. While Engels agreed that the post-Revolutionary regime in France was exploitative, he could not accept that the Revolution had merely changed the form of exploitation. On the contrary, capitalist development alongside the democratic character of the Revolution helped extend the space for socialist agitation. By dismissing the positive aspects of capitalist development, the True Socialists were unable to grasp that the workers had a dog in the fight between the liberal bourgeoisie and the absolutist state. Consequently, against True Socialism’s “sovereign disdain” for these struggles, Engels insisted that socialists should orient themselves towards “practical, tangible results” that would come from the victory of the bourgeoisie over the nobility for this would expand the “elbow-room” within which the working class could grow to maturity.19


Though the experience of 1848 famously led Marx and Engels to lose any faith they had had in the bourgeoisie’s fighting prowess, the undogmatic and flexible approach to politics that Engels evidenced before the 1848 revolutions was deepened in the following decades. An interesting example of this approach is apparent in comments he made about the electoral success of the German Social Democratic Party in an illuminating interview with the British Daily Chronicle in July 1893. When asked about the SPD’s programme, Engels answered that it “is very nearly identical with that of the Social-Democratic Federation in England, although our policy is very different”. Despite having a “Marxist” programme, the British SDF unlike its German counterpart acted in practice like a sect: “It has not understood how to take the lead of the working-class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy”.20 For Engels, by contrast with the typical academic caricature of his thought, programmatic certitude was less important than participation within the real movement from below to win influence within that movement. He defended his and Marx’s understanding of the prime significance of the real movement from below in a letter to the American Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky in 1886:

It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed, from the beginning, on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes … And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical and so contemptuous of theory as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working-class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist … will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.21

Engels had first elucidated his understanding of the enormous significance of the real workers’ movement from below in The Condition of the Working Class in England. In a comment on the defeat of the 1844 strike of Durham and Northumberland miners, he wrote

the fight had not been in vain. First of all, this nineteen weeks’ strike had torn the miners of the North of England forever from the intellectual death in which they had hitherto lain; they have left their sleep, are alert to defend their interests, and have entered the movement of civilisation, and especially the movement of the workers.22

This conception of working-class politics underpinned his defence of trade unionism. Notwithstanding the limitations of trade unionism – in 1891 Engels reminded his audience that while unions could be successful in “periods of average and brisk business; in periods of stagnation and crisis they regularly fail”, and that the major weakness of trade unionism was a failure to “remove the main thing that needs abolishing: capitalist relations”23 – he and Marx consistently supported the trade union movement because they understood these struggles to represent an elemental form of working-class self-activity.

Thus in 1881 Engels argued that despite the manifest limitations of trade unions – he noted that they did not so much challenge the wages system as enforce its logic – he claimed that without them workers would be pushed to accept pay below the market rate for the job. This made socialist trade unionism indispensable to the workers’ movement: “The great merit of Trades Unions, in their struggle to keep up the rate of wages and to reduce working hours, is that they tend to keep up and to raise the standard of life”.24 But if trade unions were to aspire to become more than the institutions through which the logic of the wages system was enforced, they should aspire to replace the motto “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work” with the demand to “abolish the wages system”.25 Such a demand, Engels suggested, should not be understood as an abstract imposition from the left but was immanent to trade unionism itself. Because trade unions are an institutional expression of the existence of “the struggle of the labourer against capital”, and because this social struggle necessarily tended to “become a political struggle”, the unions should aim to extend their implicit struggle for power into an explicit political challenge through the creation of an independent workers’ party along lines of continental socialist parties.26

Engels outlined the general architecture of his understanding of socialist “policy” in his 1874 preface to The Peasant War in Germany. Commenting on the strengths of the renewed German left, he wrote

It must be said to the credit of the German workers that they have exploited the advantages of their situation with rare understanding. For the first time since a workers’ movement has existed, the struggle is being waged pursuant to its three sides - the theoretical, the political and the economico-practical (resistance to the capitalists) - in harmony and in its interconnections, and in a systematic way.27

In the wake of the defeat of the Paris Commune Engels challenged the anarchists within the First International over questions of the powers of the General Council and political action. The latter point had been an ongoing concern for Marx and Engels since the 1840s. As we seen, having discovered the social question many of the radicals of the 1840s dismissed political matters out of hand. To the extent that a renewed version of this approach was justified within the International, anarchists around Bakunin argued that as the state was the key enemy of the left, engaging with it would be an unpardonable error. Marx was dismayed and compared this argument to the nonsense claim that as socialists are against the wages system they should refrain from taking an interest in the wages question.28

In a speech, On the Political Action of the Working Class, Engels argued that abstaining from political issues was not so much wrong as it was impossible. Politics existed and to abstain from it simply meant leaving it to the left’s opponents: “to preach abstention would be to push them [the workers] into the arms of bourgeois politics”. And precisely because the International sought “the abolition of classes” it must fight for the “political domination of the proletariat” through “the supreme act of politics”: “revolution”. Moreover, it was not simply the revolution that was political. Rather, the “political freedoms, the right to assembly and association and the freedom of press” were, as he and Marx had argued in relation to the benefits of a bourgeois revolution in the 1840s, “our weapons”. Consequently, it would be absurd not to defend them when they were under attack from reactionary forces.29

This is not to say that Engels lost sight of the goal of socialism while fighting for reforms within capitalism. For instance, in The Housing Question (1872) he defended a revolutionary solution to the housing crisis against both the Proudhonist writer, Mülberger, and the free-market writer, Sax.30 Engels’s argument was intended to show not merely that a revolution was the only long-term solution to the housing question, but also that despite their formal differences the Proudhonists and liberals came to similarly moralistic and utopian conclusions. Against Mülberger’s Proudhonist account of the housing question, he insisted that there was no pre-industrial golden age against which the present could be measured and to which we should aim to return. This reactionary utopia was rooted in a false understanding of the housing shortage as a uniquely capitalist phenomenon. Engels insisted that housing had been in short supply well before the advent of capitalism, and that though capitalist industrialisation had made the situation of workers worse, it had also, by creating the modern working class, created the potential agency to overcome this condition.31

The specific modern form of the housing shortage was not, contra Mülberger, the primary evil in the modern world. Rather, it was one of many “secondary evils” underpinned by the unequal distribution of resources springing from the wage labour relationship.32 Rather than suggest a utopian solution to this problem, Engels pointed out that in the existing world there were “sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities” to overcome the housing shortage. The problem was not a natural lack of housing but a socio-political failure to distribute housing stock rationally, and this failure, he insisted, could not be remedied until “the proletariat has won political power”.33

Mülberger’s evocation of Proudhon’s idea of “eternal justice” as the rallying cry of the struggle to remedy the housing shortage was inadequate because for each labourer to receive the full value of their labour (the core meaning of Proudhon’s concept) then either there must be a reversion to pre-industrial barter or socially produced values should be possessed socially – something possible only through the proletariat in the wake of industrialisation.34 To imagine individuals receiving as individuals the full value of their labours outside such a situation is to imagine capitalism without its contradictions: a utopian nonsense.

If Mülberger challenged capitalism from the abstract ahistorical perspective of Proudhon’s “eternal justice”, Sax, writing from the perspective of the philanthropic bourgeoisie, hoped to defend capitalism whilst overcoming its necessary evils. Rather than explain the housing shortage in relation to capitalism, he insisted that the workers’ inability to find houses was a consequence of their lax morals: drinking and smoking rather than saving was the problem. As Engels pointed out, recalling arguments he had first articulated thirty years earlier in The Condition of the Working Class in England,

The fact that under the existing circumstances drunkenness among the workers is a necessary product of their living conditions, just as necessary as typhus, crime, vermin, bailiff and other social ills, so necessary in fact that the average figures of those who succumb to inebriety can be calculated in advance, is again something that Herr Sax cannot allow himself to know.35

In a line that could today be aimed at middle-class wine-drinking condescension of working-class lager drinkers, Engels wittily added: “My old primary school teacher used to say, by the way: ‘The common people go to the pubs and the people of quality go to the clubs,’ and as I have been in both I am in a position to confirm it”.36 The key point was simple: the problem was not drink – almost everyone partook - but capitalism, and the only way to overcome the unequal distribution of resources therein was through “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production”.37


Engels’s criticisms both of Mülberger’s moral condemnation of capitalism and of Sax’s moralistic apology for the same were aimed at helping the working class avoid false solutions to the problems of their life. In particular, the emergence of a Proudhonist current in Germany worried him because if triumphant it would mark an important retreat from the German working-class movement’s own traditions.38

Though often portrayed as “sectarian” by those interlocutors unencumbered by the problems of practical political work, criticisms such as this are of the first importance to “practical materialists”.39 For instance, in 1850 in a comment on the anarchist call for the abolition of the state, Engels wrote that what differentiated his and Marx’s politics from anarchism was Marxism’s infinitely greater sense of the concrete. The problem with demanding the abolition of the state is that this idea had a changing social content through history:

In feudal countries the abolition of the state means the abolition of feudalism and the creation of an ordinary bourgeois state. In Germany it conceals either a cowardly flight from the struggles that lie immediately ahead, a spurious inflating of bourgeois freedom into absolute independence and autonomy of the individual, or, finally, the indifference of the bourgeois towards all forms of state, provided the development of bourgeois interests is not obstructed.40

By contrast with this approach, Engels insisted that the demand for the abolition of the state be imbued with a historically specific social content. Consequently, he differentiated not merely between bourgeois and feudal states, and thus of the continuing importance of the concept of a bourgeois revolution for socialists, but also between differential conceptions of the abolition of the state itself. He made it plain that socialist anti-statism had nothing in common with anarchistic statements of this type:

The abolition of the state has meaning with the Communists, only as the necessary consequence of the abolition of classes, with which the need for the organised might of one class to keep the others down automatically disappears.41

If this concluding caveat illuminates the formal overlap between Marxist and anarchist conceptions of freedom, the profound difference between these two traditions was most pointedly articulated in his short, punchy essay On Authority. Here, he commented that in their discussion of the idea of autonomy, anarchists tended to deploy an abstract and consequently useless conception of authority. At this suitably abstract level, as Engels mocked, the terms authority and subordination “sound bad” and especially “disagreeable to the subordinated”. Unfortunately, the demand for the absolute freedom of the individual in the modern context in which production had become highly socialised was “tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself”. Indeed, the concepts of “authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society”. If this point is obviously pertinent across industry where cooperation demands some form of authority, it was all the more so in a revolution. In relation to this issue, he famously wrote,

a revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon.42

Nonetheless, Engels insisted that this fact should not be confused with the continued existence of the “political state” and “political authority”. Though, in the immediate aftermath of a revolution some form of the political state would continue to exist until its social basis had withered away, as its base withered this authority would increasingly take a merely administrative form43. As Herbert Marcuse comments, in this essay Engels looked not to the ending of authority but rather to its complete democratisation.44

If something similar might be said of Auguste Blanqui’s post-revolutionary politics, the fundamental difference between his ideas and those of Marx and Engels is that whereas he envisioned a temporary post-revolutionary dictatorship until the masses were fit to rule, they insisted that workers became fit to rule through participation in the revolution itself.45 It is because Blanqui never understood this fact that, as Engels wrote, he was a “socialist only in sentiment”.46

Engels made this claim in a survey of the revolutionary left in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871: Refugee Literature (1874-5). The defeat of 1871, like the defeat of 1848, had spawned a radical but largely impotent milieu of ex-revolutionaries keen to rekindle the revolutionary wave that had left it high and dry in a seemingly impregnable London. Unfortunately, paralleling the situation Marx and Engels had found themselves in after 1848, the post-revolutionary situation escaped the comprehension of most members of this milieu. Engels wrote:

After every unsuccessful revolution or counter-revolution, feverish activity develops among the émigrés who escaped abroad. Party groups of various shades are formed, which accuse each other of having driven the cart into the mud, of treason and of all other possible mortal sins. They also maintain close ties with the homeland, organise, conspire, print leaflets and newspapers, swear that it will start over again within the next twenty-four hours, that victory is certain and, in the wake of this expectation, distribute government posts. Naturally, disappointment follows disappointment, and since this is attributed not to inevitable historical conditions, which they do not wish to understand, but to accidental mistakes by individuals, recriminations accumulate and result in general bickering.47

This context spawned competitive radicalisms as each grouping tried to outdo the others in revolutionary fervour. One manifestation of this pseudo-radical posing was a tendency, most extreme amongst Blanquists and Bakuninists, for each faction to represent itself as “the most far-reaching, most extreme trend … as regards atheism”.48 Militants within both these groupings regarded religion one-sidedly in its legitimising role and thus imagined the ideological struggle against it as an essential precondition for liberation.

According to Engels, this form of atheist politics was doubly problematic. It both misunderstood the practical materialism of large sections of the European working class, while simultaneously playing into the hands of the religious right who wanted to roll-back this practical materialism. Engels suggested that both German and French workers were to all intents and purposes atheistic in their day-to-day practice.49 But this was a novel and fragile situation such that to impose atheism from the top-down by decree would serve only to play into the hands of the religious authorities:

this demand to transform the people par ordre du mufti into atheists is signed by two members of the Commune, who surely must have had sufficient opportunity to discover, first, that anything can be decreed on paper but that this does not mean that it will be carried out; second, that persecution is the best way of strengthening undesirable convictions! This much is certain: the only service that can still be rendered to God today is to make atheism a compulsory dogma and to surpass Bismarck's anticlerical Kulturkampf laws by prohibiting religion in general.50

These arguments clearly had roots going back to Marx’s classical critique of religion in which he argued that it was not mere error but an expression of a real social need.

religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.51

The phrase “opium of the people” has tended to be misunderstood by those who view this drug through the lens of the moralistic discourse that portrayed it as an unmitigated evil from the late nineteenth-century onwards. However, when Marx wrote half a century earlier opium was seen as a social good answering a very real need. Andrew McKinnon has suggested that Marx’s phrase could usefully be updated to read that religion be understood as “the penicillin of the people”.52

Religion, from this perspective, served a real social need. In Anti-Dühring Engels argued that religion arose as an ideological reflection of, first, the natural and, later, the social, forces that dominate human life:

All religion, however, is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces. In the beginnings of history it was the forces of nature which were first so reflected, and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among the various peoples. … But it is not long before, side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active—forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves.53

Consequently, contra Roland Boer’s claim that Engels assumed that “material causes and scientific advances would bring about the swift demise of religion”,54 he actually insisted that so long as such alien forces dominate people’s lives, religious ideas will continue to exist as the elemental relation to our social and natural environment:

...religion can continue to exist as the immediate, that is, the sentimental form of men's relation to the alien, natural and social, forces which dominate them, so long as men remain under the control of these forces.55

And precisely because capitalism is characterised by such alien social relations, it will reproduce the social basis for religion.

...in existing bourgeois society men are dominated by the economic conditions created by themselves, by the means of production which they themselves have produced, as if by an alien force. The actual basis of the religious reflective activity therefore continues to exist, and with it the religious reflection itself.56

Far from Engels predicting the “total secularisation” of society as Alasdair MacIntyre mistakenly claimed, these lines evidence his belief that the social roots of religion will not wither until after the socialist transformation of society.57 In Anti-Dühring Engels returned to themes Marx had engaged with three decades earlier. The only way to overcome the need for religion would be to overcome the alienated social relations through which it is reproduced.

Against those who see in religion only a series of errors,58 in his Peasant War in Germany Engels famously tried to unravel the social content of the religious conflicts that dominated Germany in the early sixteenth century. He located three tendencies within this social conflict: the conservative Catholic camp, the moderate reformist Lutheran Burghers, and the revolutionary party led by Thomas Müntzer and the Anabaptists.59 The Peasant War in Germany is thus a concrete example of Engels’s claim that religion could not be reduced either to power-legitimising consciousness or soporific drug. It could in fact be the medium through which progressive and indeed revolutionary social forces struggled for political supremacy.60 Consequently, to dismiss the religious form through which revolutionary hopes came to be expressed as mere error would be politically unpardonable.

If biblical contradiction was the rope the youthful “Engels used to haul himself out of” his Pietist inheritance,61 his interest in the Bible continued throughout his life. Interestingly, in his essay The Book of Revelation (1883) he agreed with the historian Ernest Renan’s provocative claim that early Christian communities resembled sections of the International Working Men’s Association (First International). What interested Engels in the book of Revelation was less the detail of John’s predictions, and more the sense conveyed in his book, accurately according to John Pickard, of revolutionary fervour characteristic of the original Christian community.62 A decade later, Engels reiterated his belief in the parallels between the early Christian Church and the modern workers’ movement. In On the History of Early Christianity (1894) he insisted that Christianity was originally “a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and freedmen, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome”.63

Alongside the parallels between Christianity and modern socialism, there were obvious differences. Christianity emerged at a moment when a material solution to the evils of the day were beyond the capabilities of the time. The low level of the development of the forces of production meant that overcoming class inequalities was then impossible. This meant early Christian “socialism” was necessarily utopian and could only be imagined in a religious form as realisable in the hereafter.64


In an otherwise perceptive discussion of Marxist writings on religion Michael Löwy argues that by contrast with his view of the revolutionary potential of religion in the past, “Engels was convinced that since the French Revolution religion could no longer function as a revolutionary ideology”.65 Though he does not substantiate this claim in this book, elsewhere Löwy makes the same point by reference to Engels’s 1892 preface to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.66 In this essay Engels traced the roots of modern materialism, often seen in Victorian Britain as a foreign import, to sixteenth and seventeenth-century Englishmen such as Bacon, Hobbes and Locke.67 This argument set the scene for his claim that historical materialism is the modern heir of this older materialism, and that historical materialism constitutes the scientific study of society.68 Moreover, Engels argued that Marxism was the heir of a revolutionary tradition that breached the old feudal order in three acts: the Protestant Reformation, the English Revolution and the French Revolution. And while the first two moments were articulated in the language of religion, the third “entirely cast off the religious cloak”.69 If Marxism’s scientific status distinguished it from earlier utopian forms of socialism, the religious forms that the Continental bourgeoisie had re-learnt from their British counterparts to help legitimise their power in the wake of the French Revolution would not be able to withstand “the rising proletarian tide”: “religion will be no lasting safeguard to capitalist society”70.

Although this argument seems to conform Löwy’s claim that Engels believed the French Revolution to be a turning point in the history of religion after which it could no longer fulfil its earlier revolutionary role, in actual fact Engels made no such assumption. Indeed, he argued that because the English workers’ movement would emerge in a fragmentary and uneven manner, it was to be expected that its ideology would include a religious component. The workers’ movement

...moves, like all things in England, with a slow and measured step, with hesitation here, with more or less unfruitful, tentative attempts there; it moves now and then with an over-cautious mistrust of the name of Socialism, while it gradually absorbs the substance; and the movement spreads and seizes one layer of the workers after another.71

Coming from a religious standpoint, and in a world dominated by the alien power of capital, it was to be expected that the workers’ movement would only gradually shed its religious colouration. Engels suggested, within the existing workers’ movement anti-capitalism was taking a religious form, and some aspects of the ideology propagated by revivalists and the Salvation Army harked back to the radicalism of the early Church. The Salvation Army,

...revives the propaganda of early Christianity, appeals to the poor as the elect, fights capitalism in a religious way, and thus fosters an element of early Christian class antagonism, which one day may become troublesome to the well-to-do people who now find the ready money for it.72

Socialists would have to learn to work with movements of this sort, and though Marxists were atheists, Engels’s atheism had nothing in common with the crude atheism of the Blanquists and the Bakuninists or their modern counterparts. Similarly, when Marx was compelled by French Proudhonists to address the “religious idea” within the First International, he did the minimum he could to keep the French on side without succumbing to their crude attacks on religion and the Church.73 As Lenin wrote:

Engels blamed the Blanquists for being unable to understand that only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion, whereas to proclaim that war on religion was a political task of the workers’ party was just anarchistic phrase-mongering.74

The flipside of Blanqui’s pseudo-radical critique of religion was what Engels called his “obsolete” model of revolution as “dictatorship” through a “coup de main by a small revolutionary minority”.75

This comment is interesting precisely because Engels described the Paris Commune as an instance of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. What is the distinction between the Blanquist concept of a “revolutionary dictatorship” and the Marxist idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? Marx famously wrote that the “secret” of the Commune “was this. It was essentially a working-class government the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labour”.76 The idea of “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of Labour” is probably the most important instance of Marxism evolving through the generalisation of lessons from the history of the working-class movement. If Marx and Engels had long held to a democratic conception of the socialist revolution, the Commune had pointed to the political form through which this goal could be realised - though without votes for women on which neither Marx nor Engels commented. The Blanquists, by contrast, despite accounting themselves bravely in the Commune - sadly Blanqui himself was arrested the day before the Commune and missed the one great chance he had to realise his life-long hope of leading a revolution – never progressed beyond the elitist vision of a revolution as a “dictatorship on behalf of the general interest and human progress”.77

Marx’s idea of a working-class government was fundamentally different to this. As Engels explained in a critique of the reformism emerging within the German socialist movement,

...of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.78

Far from acting as an apology for some kind of proto-Stalinist monstrosity, not only should the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat not be conflated with a dictatorship by an elite, it should not even be conflated with the more general idea of a state. Engels wrote that the Commune, against the general trend to increase state power, “made use of two infallible means” to militate against this:

In the first place, it filled all posts - administrative, judicial and educational - by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers …. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates to representative bodies which were added besides. This shattering of the former state power and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one is described in detail [by Marx] in the third section of The Civil War in France.79

He thus reiterated a point he had first made in 1875 at the time of the unification of the Marxist and Lassallean wings on the German workers’ movement: the word “state” is misleading when used in connection with the Commune: “All the palaver about the state ought to be dropped, especially after the Commune, which has ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term”.80 It was because workers’ states, unlike all previous state forms, are expressions of the rule of the majority rather than of a minority, that it made little sense to conflate them with existing or historical states. Unlike these earlier forms they were no longer specialised coercive apparatuses maintaining exploitative social relations.

These points were intended as a critique of the proposed new unified party programme to be voted on at the Gotha conference. Marx famously criticised this document in his Critique of the Gotha Programme written in May 1875.81 It is interesting that Engels prefigured Marx’s criticisms in a letter to August Bebel written a few months earlier. Engels argued that “Our party has absolutely nothing to learn from the Lassalleans in the theoretical sphere”. Specifically, he stridently denied various Lassallean notions including that: in relation to the working class all other classes are a reactionary mass; the denial that the workers’ movement was international in character; the “outmoded” idea of an “iron law of wages” by which workers receive a minimum for their work; the demand for state aid for workers’ cooperatives as the means to liberation; and conversely the dismissal of work in the unions. These comments culminated in a warning that should the programme be adopted “Marx and I could never give our allegiance to a new party set up on that basis and shall have to consider most seriously what attitude—public as well as private—we should adopt towards it”.82 In a letter written later that year after the adoption of the programme, Engels explained why neither he nor Marx had found it expedient to break with the new party. He pointed out that the bourgeois press had in fact read into the programme his and Marx’s views. More importantly, the workers had done the same: “it is this circumstance alone which has made it possible for Marx and myself not to disassociate ourselves publicly from a programme such as this”.83

In this context, Marx and Engels wagered that, despite the shortcomings of the Party’s programme, the general superiority of the perspectives of the Party’s Marxist tendency would lead to its eventual hegemony within the organisation. In the medium term this was the turn taken by events.84 Bismarck’s authoritarian turn coincided with the publication of Engels’s Anti-Dühring (1878) which won over many of the organisation’s cadre to Marxism. One consequence in the shift in the perspective of the Party’s leadership was the revision of the Party’s programme at the Erfurt congress of 1891.


While Engels welcomed the Erfurt Programme as an improvement on the Gotha Programme, he once again criticised the failure of the Germans to address the question of state power scientifically: “The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said”. Noting that “opportunism” was “gaining ground in large sections of the Social-Democratic press”, he argued that it was incumbent upon the framers of the programme to spell out clearly to the German workers that the transition to socialism could only come “by force”. He insisted that if the SPD did not make this clear then, in the long run, the party would go “astray”. In this context he reminded his comrades that “our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.85

If opportunism was a problem in Germany, it seemed to dominate the left in England. In 1881 Engels eventually gave up writing for The Labour Standard because, as he wrote to the editor, he saw no evidence that the newspaper was progressing to become the kind of coherent socialist voice within the labour movement that it might be “if there was an undercurrent among the British working class tending towards emancipation from the liberal Capitalists”. The problem was not so much with The Labour Standard as it was with the British working class itself which showed no signs of moving to articulate its own independent political perspectives.86 Engels explained this situation by reference to a concept he and Marx had sporadically used since the 1850s: sections of the workers had formed a “labour aristocracy”. If the rational core of this claim relates to Britain’s astonishing level of economic expansion after 1848, the concept of a labour aristocracy itself has proved to be far less satisfactory as an explanatory tool to make sense of working-class politics.87

Unfortunately, nowhere did Marx or Engels overcome this weakness in their political theory; they never articulated a defensible account of working-class reformism.88 Their most important joint statement (written by Engels) against incipient reformist tendencies with the German Social Democratic Party was penned as a Circular Letter to the leadership of the party in 1879. This was written shortly after the publication of Engels’s response to Eugen Dühring’s proto-revisionism, Anti-Dühring, which amounted to a defense of the idea that socialism was rooted in the real movement of the working class against Dühring’s claim that it was a moral doctrine standing above history. If Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws seemed to confirm Engels’s defense of the need for working-class revolutionary politics, in the short term, moderate elements within the SPD continued as before. Indeed, one social democratic member of the Reichstag with the connivance of the Party’s leadership but against its stated policy voted for monies for Bismarck. Upon discovering this, Marx and Engels wrote in the Circular Letter that the vote a “disgrace for the party”, and insisted that if the party did not change tack they would be forced to make a political break with it.89

However, although the Circular Letter amounted to a powerful critique of the opportunistic substance of aspects of the Party’s practice, it did not rise to the level of a structural account of working-class reformism. Indeed, within this text they essentially dismissed reformism as a reflection of the malign influence within the party of “representatives of the petty bourgeoisie”.90 The weakness of this argument is especially noteworthy given the comparative power of their social interpretation of religion. If their failure to theorise working-class reform can partially be excused by the fact that the full consequences of structural reformism only came to a head after Engels’s death, this theoretical weakness did mean that in the years leading up to his death in 1895 Engels’s political radar was somewhat weakened when it came to dealing with the increasingly moderate leadership of the SPD, whose weaknesses he was more willing to forgive than in retrospect he perhaps ought to have been.

One arena where the tension between his approach and the approach taken by the Party’s leadership is apparent is electoral politics. Economic boom from the 1850s onwards had pushed revolution off the political agenda, while Bismarck’s introduction of universal male suffrage in 1866 created a new political landscape atop this economic prosperity. Engels was initially wary of Bismarck’s innovation. In The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers Party (1865), after suggesting that the workers and bourgeoisie “can only exercise real, organised, political power through parliamentary representation”, he pointed out that this claim was dependent on parliament having access to the “purse strings”. But, handing over control of finances to parliament was precisely what Bismarck aimed to avoid. Should socialists pour all their hopes into such an institution? “Surely not” was his reply. Moreover, he suspected that if Bismarck did decree “universal direct suffrage”, like Bonaparte before him he would so weaken this democracy as to make it essentially worthless.91

This important argument was aimed at Ferdinand Lassalle’s supporters on the left. Whereas the Lassalleans uncritically embraced Bismarck’s suggestion of universal suffrage, Engels warned that Bismarck was intent on using suffrage as Bonaparte had used it before him; not as a means to democracy but rather to bolster both his own power and the power of the Prussian Junkers. In a context where the mass of peasants and agricultural workers had not yet been swept up into the independent workers’ movement, he worried that “universal direct suffrage will not be a weapon for the proletariat but a snare”.92 The utility of universal suffrage thus depended upon the specific circumstances in which it was introduced.93 And as Engels argued a few years later, while it is conceivable that

the old society may develop peacefully into the new one in countries where the representatives of the people concentrate all power in their hands … in Germany where the government is almost omnipotent and the Reichstag and all other representative bodies have no real power, to advocate such a thing … means removing the fig-leaf from absolutism and becoming oneself a screen for its nakedness.94

Engels also believed that if workers threatened to win a parliamentary majority “the odds are ten to one that our rulers … will use violence against us, and this would shift us from the terrain of majority to the terrain of revolution”.95 Similarly, in the 1886 preface to Capital he wrote that though the social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful means in England, Marx “never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling class to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’, to this peaceful and legal revolution”.96 So while he was keen to try the new electoral tactic, by conceiving this tactic within his broader revolutionary strategic framework he showed himself to be much more aware of its limitations than was subsequently proved to be the case amongst the leadership of the SPD.


Engels’s political interventions over the period between 1848 and 1895 evidence a rich conception of revolutionary politics that can be understood neither as a form of proto-revisionism nor as an example of top-down insurrectionary adventurism. Rather he helped articulate and extend an interventionist political perspective that was orientated to fanning the flames of, and winning leadership within, the really existing working-class movement from below. In terms of tactics deployed, he was eminently flexible. Though he insisted on political independence for the workers’ party, he steered clear of sectarian posturing. This approach to politics is as relevant to the left today as it was when he wrote in the nineteenth century. As we approach the bi-centenary of Engels’s birth, the left would do well to overcome the enormous condescension that posterity has heaped upon him.

1 On Engels’s alleged fatalism see Lucio Colletti 1972, From Rousseau to Lenin, Monthly Review Press, pp. 69-70. For more general criticisms of Engels’s thought see Norman Levine 1975, The Tragic Deception: Marx Contra Engels, Clio Press; Terrell Carver, 1989, Friedrich Engels: His Life and Thought, MacMillan. For a more positive appreciation of his work see J.D. Hunley 1991, The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels, Yale University Press. For my thoughts see Paul Blackledge 2019, Friedrich Engels, SUNY Press.

2 Eduard Bernstein 1993, The Preconditions of Socialism, Cambridge University Press, 36ff.

3 Ralph Miliband 1977, Marxism and Politics, Clarendon, 169.

4 Edward Thompson ‘The Point of Production’ New Left Review 1, 1960, pp. 68-70

5 Gerd Callesen 2012, “Engels on Revolutionary Tactics, 1889-1895” Socialism and Democracy 58, Volume 26, No. 1; Hal Draper 2005, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. V, Monthly Review Press, 231-243

6 Carl von Clausewitz 2007, On War, Oxford University Press, 74; 133

7 Engels, ‘Introduction to Sigismund Borkheim’s Pamphlet, In Memory of the German Blood-and-Thunder Patriots 1806-1807’, MECW Vol. 26, 450

8 Paul Blackledge 2019, “On Strategy and Tactics: Marxism and Electoral Politics”, Science and Society Vol. 83, No. 3, July 2019, 355–380; Paul Blackledge 2019, “War and Revolution: Friedrich Engels as a Military and Political Thinker”, War and Society Vol. 38, Issue 2

9 Gerd Callesen 2012, “Engels on Revolutionary Tactics, 1889-1895” Socialism and Democracy 58 (Volume 26, No. 1) March, 2012

10 Engels, “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891”, MECW, Vol. 27, 227; cf Georg Lukács 1970, Lenin, New Left Books, pp. 9-13 and Vladimir Lenin 1961, “Persecutors of Zemsvo and Hannibals of Liberalism”, Collected Works Vol. 5, 74; “The Discussion of Self-determination Summed Up”, Collected Works Vol. 22, 298

11 Engels, “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891”, 232

12 Engels, “Interview of Frederick Engels by the Daily Chronicle at the end of June 1893”, MECW, Vol. 27, 226

13 Engels, “Reply to the Editor of the Sachsische Arbeiter-Zeitung”, MECW, Vol. 27, 70

14 It has been argued that Engels’s mature “historical materialism” had little in common with the viewpoint articulated in The German Ideology. I have challenged this criticism of his thought in Paul Blackledge 2019, “Historical Materialism” in Matt Vidal et al eds. Oxford Handbook on Karl Marx, Oxford: Oxford University Press. See, more generally, Paul Blackledge 2006, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History, Manchester: Manchester University Press

15 Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology”, MECW, Vol. 5, 53. For the distinction between morality and ethics in Marx and Engels’s thought see Paul Blackledge 2012, Marxism and Ethics, SUNY Press

16 Paul Blackledge 2018, “Hegemony and Intervention”, Science and Society Vol. 82, No. 4: 479-499

17 Ibid, Vol. 5, 49

18 Hal Draper 1978, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. II, Monthly Review Press, 24

19 Engels, “On the Constitutional Question in Germany”, MECW, Vol. 6, 76; Engels, “Preface to the 1888 English Edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party”, MECW, Vol. 26, 512

20 Engels, “Interview of Frederick Engels by the Daily Chronicle at the end of June 1893”, MECW, Vol. 27, 550

21 Engels, “Engels to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky”, MECW, Vol. 47, 541

22 Engels, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, MECW, Vol. 4, 545

23 Engels, “In the Case of Brentano Versus Marx”, MECW, Vol. 27, 98

24 Engels, “The Wages System”, MECW, Vol. 24, 380

25 Engels, “Trade Unions”, MECW, Vol. 24, 384-5

26 ibid, 386-7

27 Engels, “Supplement to the Preface of 1870 for The Peasant War in Germany”, MECW, Vol. 23, 631

28 Hal Draper 1990, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. IV, Monthly Review Press, 154

29 Engels, “On the Political Action of the Working Class”, MECW, Vol. 22, 415-418

30 Engels, “Preface to the Second Edition of The Housing Question”, MECW, Vol. 26, 423

31 Engels, “The Housing Question”, MECW, Vol. 23, 324

32 ibid, 318-20

33 ibid, Vol. 23, 330

34 ibid, Vol. 23, 325-6

35 ibid, 343

36 ibid, Vol. 23, 343

37 ibid, 368

38 Ibid, Vol. 23, 317

39 This term is taken from The German Ideology and underpinned the perspective developed in Anti-Dühring (Paul Blackledge 2017, “Practical Materialism: Engels’s Anti-Dühring as Marxist Philosophy” Critique Vol. 47, No. 4)

40 Engels, “On the Slogan of the Abolition of the State an German ‘Friends of Anarchy’”, MECW, Vol. 10, 486

41 Engels, “Le Socialisme et L’impôt par Émile de Giradin”, MECW, Vol. 10, 486; 333

42 Engels, “On Authority”, MECW, Vol. 23, 425

43 ibid, 422-425

44 Herbert Marcuse, 2008, On Authority, Verso, 87

45 Hal Draper 1986, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. III, Monthly Review Press 35

46 Engels, “The Wages System”, MECW, Vol. 24, 13

47 Engels, “Refugee Literature”, MECW, Vol. 24, 12

48 ibid, 15

49 ibid, 15-16

50 ibid, Vol. 24, 16

51 Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law”, MECW, Vol. 3, 175

52 Andrew McKinnon, “Opium as Dialectics of Religion”, Warren Goldstein ed. Marx, Critical Theory, and Religion, Haymarket, 12

53 Engels, “Anti-Dühring”, MECW, Vol. 25, 300-301

54 Roland Boer 2012, Criticism of Earth, Haymarket, 277

55 Engels, “Anti-Dühring”, 301

56 ibid

57 Alasdair MacIntyre 1967, Secularisation and Moral Change, Oxford University Press, 10

58 Engels, “The Peasant War in Germany”, MECW, Vol. 10, 411

59 Paul Siegel 1986, The Meek and the Militant, Zed, 27

60 Michael Löwy 1996, The War of Gods, Verso, 8

61 Roland Boer 2012, Criticism of Earth, Haymarket, 244

62 John Pickard 2013, Behind the Myths, AuthorHouse, 180-181

63 Engels, “On the History of Early Christianity”, MECW, Vol. 27, 447

64 ibid, 448

65 Michael Löwy 1996, The War of Gods, 10

66 Löwy, Michael 1998, “Friedrich Engels on Religion and Class Struggle” in Joost Kircz and Michael Löwy eds. 1998. Friedrich Engels – A Critical Centenary Appreciation, Science and Society vol. 62, No. 1, 84

67 Engels, “Introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, MECW, Vol. 27, 285

68 ibid, 289

69 ibid, 290-294

70 ibid, 300

71 ibid, 301

72 ibid, 297

73 Henry Collins and Chimen Abramsky 1965, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement, MacMillan, 110-112; 120-21

74 Vladimir Lenin1963, “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”, Collected Works Vol. 15, 403

75 Engels, “The Wages System”, MECW, Vol. 24, 13

76 Marx, “The Civil War in France”, MECW, Vol. 22, 334

77 Samuel Bernstein 1971, Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection, Lawrence and Wishart, 81-83

78 Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France”, MECW, Vol. 27, 191

79 ibid, 190

80 Engels, “Engels to August Bebel”, MECW, Vol. 45, 64

81 Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, MECW, Vol. 24, 95

82 Engels, “Engels to August Bebel 18-28 March 1875”, MECW, 45, 60-66

83 Engels, “Engels to August Bebel 12 Oct 1875”, MECW, Vol. 45, 97-8

84 Carl Schorske, 1983, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917, Harvard University Press, 3

85 Engels, “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891”, MECW, Vol. 27, 217-232

86 Engels, “Letter to George Shipton”, MECW, Vol. 46, 123

87 Charlie Post 2010, “Exploring Working-Class Consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labour Aristocracy’”, Historical Materialism, Volume 18, number 4, 7

88 David Fernbach 1974, “Introduction” in David Fernbach ed. Karl Marx: The First International and After, London: Penguin, 63. Paul Blackledge 2013, “Left-Reformism, the State and the Problem of Socialist Politics Today”, International Socialism 139

89 Marx Engels, 1989, “Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke and Others”, MECW, Vol. 24, 260; 269

90 ibid, 264; 267

91 Engels, “The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party”, MECW 20, 74

92 Ibid, 75

93 Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. V, 116

94 Engels, “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891”, 226. More generally on Marx and Engels’s approach to electoral politics see Richard Hunt 1984, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels Vol. II, University of Pittsburgh Press, 325-362

95 Engels, “Reply to the Honourable Giovanni Bovio”, MECW 27, 271

96 Marx, Capital Vol. I, 113