In: New Left Review 123, May-June 2020, pp. 75-88.
Friedrich Engels famously spent his working life in the shadow of Karl Marx, a position he now occupies for posterity, and one in which he willingly placed himself. Born in 1820 in the Rhineland town of Barmen, he left school a year before his Abitur on the say-so of his father and, as the eldest son, entered the family business. An autodidact, then, his encounter with Marx left him profoundly impressed by the systematic-philosophical brilliance of the young Hegelian, whom he hailed as a world thinker. By comparison, he himself was no more than, perhaps, a talent. Among the German philosophizing classes of the time, the type of speculative thinking at which Marx excelled was considered the highest form of scientific endeavour; Engels, who shared this outlook, may have seen his own contribution, grounded in positivism, as pedestrian by comparison. In the collaboration with Marx, he understood his role to be that of editor, reader, publisher, translator, publicist and hence also popularizer of Marxian (not Marxist-Engelsian) theory, making it comprehensible to the socialist movement for which it was intended. That the act of translation resulted at times in simplifications and reductive formulations was not only unavoidable but desirable, though the price to be paid for it was the still-lingering suspicion that Engels was incapable of greater complexity. […]