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“For as long as the oppressed class, in this case the proletariat, is not ripe for its economic emancipation, just so long will its majority regard the existing order of society as the only one possible, and form the tail, the extreme leftwing, of the capitalist class… Universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class”

The German philosopher Friedrich Engels (1825-1895), who co-authored with Karl Marx (1818-1883) The Communist Manifesto (1848), formed with his works not only Marxist theory, but also the development of the ideology of socialist feminism. Especially important became for the latter Der Ursprung der Familie, des States und des Privateigentums (The Origin of the Family, the State and Private Property), published in 1884.

Born in November 1820 in Barmen, now Wuppertal, in Prussia as the son of a wealthy cotton textile manufacturer, Engels defied the career path his Pietist protestant parents had in mind for him. Instead of a career in textile production, he dropped school and chose the military. In 1841, Engels joined the Prussian Army as a member of the Household Artillery. He was assigned to Berlin, where he attended university lectures at the University of Berlin and began to associate with a group of Young Hegelians. He anonymously published articles in the Rheinische Zeitung, exposing the poor employment and living conditions endured by factory workers. Though Karl Marx was the editor of this newspaper, they would not meet until late 1842 in Paris.

His parents had sent the twenty-two-year old Engels to Manchester, England, and he made stop meet Marx. In Manchester, which was a manufacturing center at that time, he was supposed to work in the offices of the Ermen and Engels’s Victoria Mill, which made sewing threads. His father hoped that working at the Manchester firm might make his son reconsider not only his career plans, but also his left-liberal political opinions. But the opposite happened. In Manchester, Engels wrote about the English slums with great detail, noting the prevalence of child labor and overworked male and female laborers. He was particularly struck by the number of deformed workers walking around the city as result of industrial accidents. In a series of three articles to Marx for the Rheinische Zeitung, Engels summarized his impressions and experiences of Manchester. They would become part of his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845.

In Manchester, Engels met Mary Burns, a young working woman with radical political opinions. They began a relationship that lasted twenty years until her death in 1863. The two never married, as both were against the institution of marriage. While Engels regarded stable monogamy as a virtue, he considered the current state and church-regulated marriage as a form of class oppression.

Upon his return to Germany in 1844, he collaborated more closely with Karl Marx and the circle of socialist around him. Together Marx and Engels moved in 1845 to Brussels, where they spent much of their time organizing the city’s large group of exiled German workers, who had left their home country to avoid political persecution. In Brussels, Marx and Engels joined the underground Communist League, an international society of proletarian revolutionaries with branches in various European cities.

When Revolution of 1848 started in Paris in February 1848 and quickly spread like a firebrand from there to many Austrian, German and Hungarian cities, Engels and Marx moved to the German city of Cologne in the Prussian Rhine Province, where they published a new newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was outspoken in its criticism of the Prussian and Austrian monarchy and propagated democratic and socialist ideas. The defeat of the revolutionaries all over Continental Europe, forced Marx and Engels to leave Germany and go into exile in London. Despite his criticism of capitalism, Engels formed the offices of Ermen & Engels in Manchester, which allowed him to function as a successful businessman. When his sold his partnership in 1869, Engels had enough money to live comfortably until his death in 1895. He even was able to support his friend Karl Marx regularly with money, who tried to live in exile from his writing.

Engels’ work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Der Ursprung der Familie, des Staates und des Privateigenthums) published in 1884, explored the role of property in the creation of the modern family and as such modern civilization by arguing that a patriarchal monogamous marriage was the only guarantee for the inheritance of property from one generation to the other. As a result, in the age of capitalism, bourgeois interests, dictate the rules for relationships and inheritances in marriage and family laws. Furthermore, Engels argued that a relationship based on property rights and forced monogamy will only lead to the proliferation of immorality and prostitution. Therefore, the only class, which was free from these restraints of property, and as a result from the danger of “moral decay,” was for him the “proletariat,” as it lacks the monetary means that are the basis of (as well as threat to) the bourgeois marriage. Monogamy is thus guaranteed in working class relations by the fact that theirs is a voluntary sex-love relationship.

Engels in addition argued, that social revolution, which he believed would happen soon, would eliminate class differences, and therefore also the need for prostitution and the enslavement of women. If men needed only to be concerned with sex-love and no longer with property and inheritance, then monogamy would come naturally. In short, Engels, saw the subjugation of women as intertwined with the patriarchal system of capitalism.  Rather than for a reform of the gender system of the capitalist society, women needed to fight for the socialist revolution, which would create a new societal structure without property and exploitation that would guarantee the rights of workers and women.

This and other works by Friedrich Engels remain relevant due to the contributions he and Karl Marx provided for Marxism and socialist feminism. They both believed that the woman’s economic emancipation was a precondition to achieving the overthrow of the bourgeois.  Female socialists and communists returned to Engels and Marx’s work to create Marxist feminism.  In this political line of thought, the struggle of the working class did not discriminate across biological sex.

Eric Schmidt, History with a concentration in modern European studies, Class of 2018


Literature and Websites

  • Carver, Terrell. Friedrich Engels: His Life and Thought. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991.
  • Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Chicago: C.H. Kerr &, 1884.
  • Hammen, Oscar J. “Friedrich Engels.” Encyclopædia Britannica, at: (Accessed April 20, 2018).


Friedrich Engels, 1879
Cover of Der Ursprung der Familie, des States und des Privateigentums (The Origin of the Family, the State and Private Property), 1884
Friedrich Engels, c. 1840