A very special business angel

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

The Economist describes a very special business angel — Friedrich Engels:

Marx’s father was a Jewish lawyer turned Christian; Engels’s a prosperous Protestant cotton-mill owner. Marx studied law, then philosophy; Engels, the black sheep of his family, was sent to work in the family business at 17. While doing his military service in 1841 in Berlin, he was exposed to the ferment of ideas swirling around the Prussian capital.

Next, he went to work for the Manchester branch of the family business, Ermen & Engels. Manchester’s “cottonopolis” in the mid-19th century was a manufacturer’s heaven and a working man’s hell, and it provided an invaluable lesson for Engels: that economic factors were the basic cause of the clash between different classes of society. By 1845, when he was just 24, he had not only learnt how to be a successful capitalist; he had also written a coruscatingly anti-capitalist work, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, which charted the inhumanity of modern methods of production in minute detail.

Engels left Manchester to work with Marx on the “Communist Manifesto” and the two of them spent the late 1840s criss-crossing Europe to chase the continental revolutions of the time, ending up in England. Marx had started work on “Das Kapital”, but there was a problem. He had by then acquired an aristocratic German wife, a clutch of small children and aspirations for a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, but no means of support.

Engels (whose name resembles the word for “angel” in German) offered an astoundingly big-hearted solution: he would go back to Manchester to resume life in the detested family cotton business and provide Marx with the money he needed to write his world-changing treatise. For the next 20 years Engels worked grumpily away, handing over half his generous income to an ever more demanding Marx. He also collaborated intensively on the great work, contributing many ideas, practical examples from business and much-needed editorial attention. When at last volume I of “Das Kapital” was finished, he extricated himself from the business and moved to London to be near the Marx family, enjoying life as an Economist-reading rentier and intellectual.

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