What can we learn from the work of Frederick Engels 200 years after his birth? Perhaps we can speak of what compelled this author to join the Communist Party to begin with — a desire to struggle for socialism in the world as it is today.
In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels denounces the approach to socialism he describes as “ascetic” and “denouncing all the pleasures in life.” It is a religion he describes, something that seeks to abolish all ills in society at once, as if the only thing standing in the way of liberation for all humankind was simply going around and changing the minds of those in power. This belies a focus on the individual as the fulcrum of history and reveals that this kind of socialism is rooted in utopianism, not the world.
Engels did not come to this criticism of utopianism by accident. Thirty-five years before, Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, written from his personal observations as he was shepherded through Manchester by his partner, Fenian organizer Mary Burns. He witnessed firsthand the miserable conditions of all sections of the proletariat he could find access to. He painstakingly recorded the litany of horrific diseases these people were subject to, with many passages on painful intestinal illness, women losing pregnancies to miscarriage, and on childhood physical development arrested due to back-breaking work. The horrors that he must have witnessed obviously changed the man, as he reserves his most forceful language for the English bourgeoisie, those who put children in mines, calling them “incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress.” Not only that — they were “deeply demoralized,” cynical, and cold.
Yet Engels himself was of the bourgeoisie, his father owning textile factories in both Britain and Germany. Radicalized in school, he decided on a different path for his life’s purpose. He eventually ended up joining the family firm, which was why he found himself in Manchester and had access to study both workers and owners of capital. He also lived in interesting times, seeing many revolutionary movements rise and fail. In his work, The Revolutionary Act: Military Insurrection or Political and Economic Action? (1895), he identifies the commonality among them as being primarily “minority revolutions.” This meant that while the majority consented to the upheaval of society, the masses were ill-prepared to defend the revolutions from backsliding and letting hard-won gains slip through their fingers. Engels describes the problem:
After the first great success, the minority as a rule split; one half was content with what had been gained, while the other half, wanting to go further, set up new demands which in part were really or apparently in the interest of the great mass of the people. The more radical demands would in some isolated cases be enforced, but more often only for the moment; the more moderate party would again get the upper hand, and that which had been won last was again lost in whole or in part; the vanquished would then shout treason or would attribute the defeat to accident. In reality the lay of the land was usually this: the gains of the first victory were made secure only through the second victory of the radical party; whenever that, and thereby momentary needs had been attained, the radicals and their successes would vanish from the scene.
The solution, Engels posited, was “hard, tenacious struggle from position to position” until conditions were ripe for working-class success. This would assign revolutionaries with two major tasks: ascertaining what conditions would be best for a revolution to succeed, and consciously taking steps to achieve those conditions. Engels identifies that one of the most crucial mile markers on that revolutionary journey is the franchise — the votes of working-class people. It serves as a powerful “temperature check” of mass awareness among those who have the ability to vote. This is why Communists seek to expand the franchise wherever possible, not only by fighting poll taxes, racist terror, and laws that disenfranchise workers, but also by registering people to vote and explaining to them why it’s important for their voices to be heard. By including the maximum number of people in the franchise, Communists gain a better awareness of working-class attitudes while being able to push for policies that clear the path toward socialism, such as abolishing the racist electoral college and proposing a Bill of Rights Socialism.
The latest election was a powerful repudiation of Trump’s fascist agenda. A man built his brand on hate and violence and, despite losing the popular vote in 2016, leaned on infrastructure set up by slave owners to become president for four painful years. This section of the franchise was outnumbered this year, with over 80 million people voting against a continued Trump presidency. More seasoned organizers understood that he was not the one who created ICE or placed U.S. Marines in Syria, that the functional differences between Trump and Biden are often cosmetic. Trump was what was revealed when the mask of capitalism in the 21st century slipped, and Biden is eager to cover that ugly face up with something more palatable once again. But organizers would be falling into the idealist trap Engels warns against if they failed to recognize material gains with Trump out of office.
Under a continued Trump presidency, the struggle for universal health care and a Green New Deal would be sidelined by the urgent necessity to fight against increasing racist terror in the streets. Demands for an expanded franchise would be placed in a defensive position as a Trump administration would seek to strengthen the racist electoral college and disenfranchise even more voters of color. Undocumented workers would be more fearful of struggling for their rights in areas of the country where Trump allowed ICE free rein. Communists of all stripes would be on the defensive, scrambling to maintain gains hard-won over the past hundred years instead of being able to take stock of their position and move forward. The progressive left is not strong enough in the United States to build a mass base at this time, so it must fight on every front to create the conditions for such an environment to flourish.
Let’s take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a case study that Engels might examine. She is a 31-year-old Latina from the Bronx who was able to secure a congressional seat from Joe Crowley, who’d held the seat for 20 years. She did this by running on a platform that has been accepted by the mainstream as “radical left” — though those on the radical left would often disagree with this label.
Indeed, sometimes it seems that AOC is as controversial on the left as she is on the right, especially on issues of U.S. militarism and imperialism, having denounced Venezuela as a “failed state” and posed for photos with supporters of the Bolivian coup of 2019. She has voted to pass every defense bill that’s crossed her desk. She appears in magazines posing in outfits that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, her constituency has suffered possibly more than any from the Covid-19 pandemic, with tens of thousands dead and more than a quarter behind on the rent. To critics on the left, she represents the adaptive conditions of a party that has lost so much relevance to the voting U.S. population. She is a last-ditch effort to shore up legitimacy for a party that is run by Silicon Valley, hedge funds, and the forces behind any number of neoliberal color revolutions.
All true — and so what?
She also represents a shifting view across the country, as well as an opportunity to raise mass consciousness around the issues that matter to our class. She is also viciously attacked by the extreme right on her age, gender, and race — all because of her mildly social democratic political positions. Engels would not take time out of his research and study regime to viciously attack the social democrats and their gains among the electorate. They are, after all, a tiny sliver of what remains a very exclusive club of elites. He would likely see it as a sign of progress that a young Latina bartender could join a legislative body where 48% are millionaires and 79% are white. He would carefully study the conditions of the people of the Bronx and North Queens to examine what forces led to her election, and how those strategies might be employed elsewhere and to what end.
Two hundred years after his birth, Engels’ commentary on what successful conditions would lead to building socialism continues to be rich material for today’s revolutionaries. Indeed, his introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850, written just months before he passed from cancer in August 1895, represented not only his political last will and testament, but the very culmination of his previous seven decades of research and experience.
To turn away from observing and reading our material conditions in the interest of pushing for “revolution now” would be to sputter out before we even began. We would be failing to take into account the diversity of viewpoints and changing tides of opinion, as well as the rising mass consciousness among the working class and oppressed in the United States. Such an ultra-left position can often come across from some as privilege speaking — Leninists would agree that a revolutionary’s first duty is to listen to the people to better learn how to speak with them.
Engels was always frank about seeing reality for what it was and then applying dialectical materialism to chart a way forward. To do otherwise is to join a church, or a cult, and become more and more isolated from the working class. We cannot be afraid to do as Engels did: learning as much as we can about present conditions and exploring all options. Our lives, and our futures, depend on it.
Source: Communist Party USA – Engels at 200: Struggle for socialism in the real world