Friedrich Engels

Find out about Friedrich Engels, his connection with Manchester, and the controversy surrounding his statue in the city's First Street, in this blogpost by MA student Gemma.

By Karen Shannon · July 18, 2021

Statue of Friedrich Engels
Location: First Street / artist: unknown / date: 1970s (unveiled: 16th July 2017) / material: concrete


Friedrich Engels is best known for his involvement in the revolutionary socialist political structure now known as Marxism. Alongside Karl Marx, he helped develop the theory that would go on to inspire Lenin and Stalin and form the cornerstone of communist ideology. Engels himself, however, was born in 1820, in  Barmen, Prussia (present day Wuppertal, Germany) the eldest son and child of Friedrich Engels Snr and Elisabeth Franziska Mauritia von Haar. Friedrich’s family had risen in prosperity due to the entrepreneurship of his great-grandfather, who had founded a factory that manufactured lace and ribbon. The Engels business grew successfully with every passing generation and by the time of Friedrich’s birth, the family were thriving within the cotton-textile industry. Born into a devout, fundamentalist Christian family, they practised Pietism, which was a sect within the Lutheran church that emphasised personal faith. It was, nevertheless, a notoriously intolerant regime within its closed community and it was within this oppressive religious structure that Friedrich spent his formative years. Nevertheless, his home life was warm and privileged, and until age 14 he attended a local school, where the pietist doctrine was upheld and the pupils’ minds were shaped towards approved teachings. Friedrich became introduced to more liberal scholars during his time at a boarding school in Elberfeld, despite technically being a pietist school. He remained there until he was a few months shy of his 17th birthday, developing a skill in languages and in interest in literature and classics. Yet despite developing his interests further at university, Friedrich entered into the family business, which at that time had also expanded to Manchester. From an early age Friedrich Senior had found his son to be somewhat quiet and peculiar compared to the rest of the siblings – though it could be argued that he simply did not fit the conservative mould of the Engels family. As he advanced, he became enthusiastic towards revolutionary politics, which developed further during an apprenticeship in Bremen (orchestrated by his father) and during his military service in the Prussian Army, where he was able to attend lectures at the University in Berlin and simultaneously began publishing articles about industrial working and living conditions.


In an attempt to curtail their son’s radical leanings, the Engels family sent Friedrich to Manchester to protect their interests in the cotton manufacturing firm, Ermen and Engels. He arrived in December 1842, with entirely different motivations. Manchester was at the heart of the industrial revolution and for the radical-leaning Friedrich, it was the perfect place to study the social and political implications of industrialisation. Although he did work at his father’s factory during the day, Engels moonlighted as a social investigator and with the help of Mary Burns, who guided him through the slum dwellings of the city, his socialist beliefs became entrenched. He was deeply influenced by his first stay in Manchester and by the political involvement of the working class as Manchester, whose focal point was the Chartist movement at the time. Engels left the city in 1844 and wrote his famous publication The Condition of the Working Class in England, which was published in German the following year. The book detailed his horror at the working and living conditions of industrial workers, and argued that the Industrial Revolution had an extremely negative impact upon workers’ lives.


Engels first met Karl Marx when passing through Cologne on his way to Manchester, yet the strong bond that came to define their relationship would not develop until 1844 when they met again in Paris. Impressed by Engels’ essays in Conditions, Marx adopted some of Engels’ ideas about the importance of the working class in a revolution, implanting it into his own budding philosophy. The pair began a lifelong friendship and a firm partnership in the development of a radical socialist ideology that resulted in the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Together they were heavily involved with the underground political organisation, The Communist League, who had commissioned them to write the manifesto. Following the revolution in France in 1848, Engels and Marx returned to Cologne where they established a revolutionary newspaper called, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was branded as influential in the revolutions that swept through the German states in 1848. Facing arrest warrants in Prussia for their role in the attempted revolutions, Engels and Marx returned to England, to Manchester and London respectively. Returning to his job at his family’s factory, he took it upon himself to finance Marx as he worked on Das Kapital, yet continued to also find time to write his own publications.


Throughout his life, Engels would publish numerous influential books that explored the themes of exploitation, dialectical materialism, historical materialism and anthropological assessments to the change of family life throughout history. His thoughts on social and political revolution continued to develop with time and through constant correspondence with his friend, Karl Marx, as well as through careful scrutiny of events happening upon the continent. His friendship with Marx continued until his death in 1883 and afterwards, Engels dedicated a significant amount of time in editing unfinished volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital. He spent the remainder of his days in London and died in 1895 of throat cancer, aged 74.


The statue of Friedrich Engels on First Street is distinctly soviet in style. Made of concrete, it still brandishes the yellow and blue spray-paint and scars of its former life. The story of how the Engels’ statue came ‘home’ to Manchester is as remarkable as the life of the political theorist himself. Originally erected in Ukraine, sometime in the 1970s, the artist is unknown, though it was undoubtedly erected as a propaganda instillation by the Soviet regime. For that reason, it is probably not surprising that artist Phil Collins – not that Phil Collins – found it toppled, dissected at the waist, spray-painted and cast aside in wasteland. Collins brought it back to the city and the statue was unveiled as part of the Manchester International Festival closing ceremonies.

Installed upon a new plinth, the statue itself stands 3.5m tall and despite the simplicity of its material, it remains a domineering presence. Its permanent installation has also divided opinion. While most people recognise Engels’ connection to Manchester and his championing of the working classes, it is that particular statue that some take issue with. The fact that it began as a propaganda memorial for an often brutal regime is not lost on people, and some have deemed it inappropriate to have that representation within a city that has become home to communities who were forced to flee communism.