In remembrance of Frederick Engels – by Frederick Lessner (1907)

I now wish to give a few reminiscences of Engels. As mentioned before, my first acquaintance with Engels and Marx took place in London, in 1847, and it was in the Communist Club—the only club that has stuck true to its principles and is still alive. It was on that memorable occasion when Marx, Engels, W. Wolff, and the Belgian comrade Tetesko came from Brussels to come to an understanding about the principles and tactics of the new movement. It is now well known that Marx and Engels at this Congress were chosen to elaborate the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

In the Communist Club it was that I bought Engels’s book on The Condition of the Working Class in England, first published in 1845, which was there for sale.

Engels’s personal appearance was quite different from that of Marx. Engels was tall and slender, his movements quick and impulsive, his language short and to the point, his bearing erect, with a soldierly effect. He was of a lively nature, with an effective wit, and everyone who came into contact with him could feel at once that he had to deal with an unusually intellectual man. When occasionally persons came to me to complain that Engels did not treat them as he ought, they did not know and realise that Engels was very reticent with strangers, and very friendly with those whom he had once acknowledged as friends. He was a good judge of human nature, which, however, did not prevent him from being taken in sometimes.

He was very liberal in granting relief to persons who came to him in need, but as he found out that he was victimised by the systematic “beggar-league,” he later on consulted me, and largely left it to me to expend his bounty.

Engels’s portrait would not be complete if I were not to mention the estimate of his old friend George Julian Harney, the editor of the Chartist organ, Northern Star, who knew him since 1843:—“I have known him, he was my friend and occasional contributor, for many years. It was in 1843 when he came from Bradford to Leeds and inquired after me at the office of the Northern Star  . . . I found a tall, stately young man, with an almost boyish face; his English was already at that time—in spite of his German birth and education—without fault. He told me that he was a constant reader of the Northern Star, and with the greatest interest had followed the Chartist movement. And so commenced our acquaintance, 32 years ago. Engels, with all his work and troubles found always time to remember his friends, to give advice, to help where required. His vast knowledge and influence never made him proud; on the contrary, with 75 years he was just as modest and ready to acknowledge the work of others as when he was 22. He was extremely hospitable, full of fun, and his fun was contagious. He was the soul of the entertainment, and managed admirably to make his guests comfortable, who, at that time, were mostly Owenites, Chartists, Trade Unionists, and Socialists.”

My own more intimate knowledge with Engels commenced in 1848, at Cologne, where he was one of the editors of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. I went then under the assumed name of “Friedrich Carstens,” and Engels had found out that I was a tailor by trade, and henceforth appointed me “master of his wardrobe.” I am sorry, however, to state that at that time my functions consisted mainly in repairing his garments. Neither he nor Marx ever took much notice of dress, and, besides, pecuniary conditions just then were not very flourishing.

I was only a young man at that time, and it never was my habit to push myself into the front, and I only met Engels at meetings.

However, the Prussian reaction was at work to destroy the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and when this did not succeed at the first onset, they tried more drastic measures. Two prosecutions were instigated, the first on February 7th, the second on February 9th, against the Executive of the Rhenisch Democrats.

Both these proceedings I attended, and it was a pleasure to me to see with what ingenuity and perseverance the reactionary methods of that time were combatted. Even opponents could not help expressing their admiration.

After the suppression of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and the illegal expulsion of Marx, the editors dispersed in all directions. Marx went to Paris, Engels to the Palatinate, where the movement for a constitution for the whole German Empire had just commenced. Engels’s activity in the Palatinate may be judged by his contribution on that subject in the Politische Oekonomische Revue (London Hamburg, and New York, 1850), of which Marx was editor.

After the suppression of the revolution in Baden, Engels and other revolutionists had to escape to Switzerland, where, however, Engels did not stay long, and went, in 1850, to London, where a great number of refugees at that time had assembled. Here commenced hard times for Engels and Marx, as neither of them had any income.

It was about that time that the Communist Club was most active; political refugees of all ways of thinking met here, among them being Marx, Engels, Liebknecht, and Wolff. With so many refugees entertaining different views on past and future political efforts, it was no wonder that great differences existed.

Engels left London in 1850, in order to enter his father’s cotton factory in Manchester, in which he became, in 1864, a partner. In 1869, after his father’s death, he retired from business, and returned to London, in order to devote all his time to collaboration with Marx.

In 1859 the Communist section started a German weekly paper, Das Volk (of which only 16 numbers were printed), in opposition to the Londoner Zeitung Hermann, founded by Kinkel.

The outbreak of the Franco-German war interested Engels greatly, and he devoted his time during that period to writing articles for the Pall Mall Gazette, which proved his military talent, and procured him the nickname “General.” He prophesied several defeats of the French. When the concentration of the Germans around the French Northern army was in progress, Engels stated in the Pall Mall Gazette that if General MacMahon could not succeed in breaking through with his army to Belgium, he would be forced to capitulate in the plain of Sedan—which really happened two weeks later.

After the defeat of the Commune of Paris, the position of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association became very difficult, especially for Marx and Engels, as a great number of international refugees arrived in London, which occasioned additional work and loss of time. Among those refugees we must not forget the Hungarian comrade Leo Frankel, who had been a member of the Government under the Commune, and after its defeat succeeded in passing through the German lines in the disguise of a match-seller. Frankel was one of the few who were perfectly clear-headed, and sure of our goal. After the amnesty, Frankel returned to Paris, where he continued his propaganda. He died some years ago in Paris; in him our cause lost a devoted comrade. Honour to his memory!

The Commune refugees who arrived here belonged to all shades of political and economical ideas, and accused each other of having caused their defeat. Blighted hopes, as well as the poor circumstances in which most of them found themselves here, were the cause of these disputes. The invidious attacks of the capitalist press, combined with the general ignorance of the Commune and its aims, as well as the open hostility of the Anarchist section, all seemed to tend to crush the international Labour movement about that time.

The transfer of the General Council of the International to New York, according to the decision of the Hague Congress, gave both Marx and Engels more leisure for their economical studies. Marx devoted himself to his great work, Das Kapital. Engels became secretary of the International. The translation of the Communist Manifesto, as also the translation of other pamphlets, and the writing of articles on topics of the day, occupied Engels at this time. In 1878, he suffered a heavy loss by the death of his wife, an Irishwoman, who had been heart and soul in favour of the Fenian movement. As Engels had no children, he felt the loss of his wife acutely.

Engels took a great interest in the Trade Union movement, as also in the propaganda for the legal eight hour day. In spite of his age, he witnessed the May Day demonstrations, and usually managed to get on one of the carts which were used as platforms.

Being a member of the Communist Club, the Social-Democratic Federation, and Socialist League, and helping at the starting of the Independent Labour Party, my visits to Engels were always welcome, as I kept him informed on all that occurred in these organisations. I must mention here that Engels did not quite agree with some of the tactics of the Social-Democratic Federation.

Engels kept his freshness for work until his death. He was a good linguist, mastering ten languages, and at the age of 70 learned Norwegian, in order to read the works of Ibsen and Kielland in the original.

Engels, like Marx, seldom appeared as a public speaker; each liked a debate, but as speakers they were not popular. Engels’s last public appearance was in 1893. He spoke at the Congress of Zurich, at Vienna, and Berlin. His reception at Zurich, and the enthusiastic outburst at his greeting made a deep impression upon him, as he often told me. His visit to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland was really a triumphal pilgrimage of our ideas. He regretted much that Marx was not spared to visit this new Germany, the Germany of the workers.

In 1895 Engels went for the last time to Eastbourne, his favourite summer resort, but returned without improvement, as Eleanor Marx informed me.

Under such circumstances, I decided not to molest him by a visit, and was sorry for it, as I did not see Engels alive again. On the evening of August 5th, Bernstein sent me information that if I wanted to see Engels again, I should make haste, as his condition was desperate. I resolved to see him early next morning, but received the news of his death, which occurred between 11 and 12 the night before.

When I went, I found Engels dead on his bed, similar to the occasion when I saw Marx the last time, on March 15th, 1883.

Engels’s will stipulated that he was to be cremated, and his ashes thrown into the sea. This last wish was fulfilled on August 27th, when Eleanor Marx, Dr. Aveling, Herr E. Bernstein, and myself, travelled to Eastbourne, hired a boat, and two miles from the coast threw his ashes into the sea.

That was the last of him. But if Marx and Engels have thus disappeared from the earthly scene, the principles they advocated are alive, and will continue to spread in all countries, until the final victory of International Socialism.

[From Frederick Lessner, Sixty Years in the Social-Democratic Movement: Before 1848 and After. Recollections of an Old Communist (1907)]  The tribute to Engels by Chartist leader George Julian Harney that is mentioned by Lessner was published as ‘Frederick Engels’, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 17 August 1895, and is reprinted in David Goodway (ed.), George Julian Harney: The Chartists Were Right: Selections from the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 1890-97, Merlin Press.

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