Annie Leonard and Karl Marx… Or Is It Frederick Engels?

Annie Leonard and Karl Marx… Or Is It Frederick Engels?

Recently on Fox News, Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, was likened to Karl Marx with a ponytail. I do not know how Annie is wearing her hair these days, but she reminds me far more of the young Frederick Engels than of Karl Marx.

Let me explain.

Annie’s widely circulated animated video makes the connections between overproduction and ecological damage as well as between sustainability and job creation. In all of this, she is following in the footsteps of Frederick Engels, not Marx.

Although Karl Marx is a household name, Engels may have played a more important historical role. Firstly, he all but invented Marx, supporting him financially, emotionally and politically, and introducing him to the dismal subject of political economy that would dominate his life. Engels was Marx’s source of the historical examples that allowed Marx to create his world changing theories. Further, Engels made Marx’ writing accessible.

Engels interrupted the life of Marx, an itinerant philosopher who jumped from one intellectual activity to another, and set him at his life’s work. Finally, Engels was the public face of Marxism from 1873 on, as Marx battled diseases that claimed his life in 1883. Engels died in 1895, the leader of powerful national political parties and unions.

Engels was charming, good-looking, athletic, popular, and fluent in English. Marx was none of the above. Generations of students learned about Marxism from Engels’ shorter, more popular works, which were more immediately understandable: they provided working people with intellectual tools to understand their historic era and the role they might play in its future developments. Always ready with a military simile, Engels likened his concise booklets to grenades thrown into the enemy camp. “Why can’t you be like me?” he would exhort Marx, who struggled to write.

Of course, Marx, the brilliant intellectual and trained philosopher, added to Engels’ insights his pioneering ideas: the economic interpretation of history, materialist philosophy that integrates ideas and actions, the fetishism of commodities that hides human virtue, and class struggle. Perhaps, most relevant were Marx’ concepts of ideology, alienation and false consciousness, which speak to us daily in our modern predicament. Marx’ vision of un-alienated labor in a modern industrial society, inspires hundreds of millions of people to this day.

It was the self-educated Engels, however, who was the first Marxist. Engels’ youthful insights into burgeoning capitalism were accurate, and, he thought, could be scientifically proven as the basis for optimism for change in the near future. Engels focused on real people. As a textile mill manager and owner in Germany and England, he saw, up close and personal, the raw radical nature of industrial capitalism and the new political economy that it spawned.

He arrived in Manchester at the age of 23,after a short career as a military leader against the Prussian monarchy, censorship and hatred of democracy, to oversee his father’s interests in Manchester. This city in the 1840’s was perhaps the only place in the world at the time that could reveal the true promise and perils of industrial capitalism. England was at the heart of industrial capitalism. The textile industry was its heart, and Manchester was the heart of the textile industry. If one could transform Manchester, one could transform the world. And Manchester was the critical center of the Chartists, who had a valid democratic, non-violent strategy for change that would transcend the dualism posed by the creative destruction of capitalism. Engels loved the English workers, for he thought they were capable of changing the world, transforming competitive industrialization with cooperative industrialization.

As a child Engels wandered through his hometown of Bremen, dominated by his family’s textile mills, built up by three previous generations. Despite the liberal views with which the family ran its mills, Engels was confronted daily by the Wuppertal River polluted by the mills’ bleacheries. Nor could he ignore the workers’ living conditions; warrens where human misery, crime, drugs and sexual depravity, were the only visible outlets for its inhabitants. Where the family could not be sustained. When he got to Manchester and saw even worse conditions, he feared for the future of his homeland, and for the rest of the world should this industrial system spread.

Engels introduced Marx to Manchester–to its new class of industrial workers, and to the Manchester Library, the working people’s library, recently founded by Charles Dickens. Here, Engels laid in front of Marx the classical works of political economy and ordered him to study them. This ignited the decisive historical force of Marxism. Marx’ and Engels’ relationship developed into the most unique partnership in intellectual and political history.

All the core principles of Marxism were present in the young Engels before he ever met Marx. He marveled at the power of large-scale capitalism: how it multiplied human labor a thousand fold with its new energy forms and technology; how it created the greatest wealth in history; and how, simultaneously, it created the greatest poverty and anguish in history. How the owning class captured the state to promote its own interest and neglect all others. How the owners loved the law because it protected them. And, how the poor feared the law because it suppressed them.

Engels was the world’s first industrial economist and first industrial ecologist: the first sustainability activist. He also was the most prominent student of the English Chartists, the first civil rights movement in the world that continues to inspire today’s Chinese dissidents to totalitarianism.

Classical economists, reflecting the worldview of the owning class, Engels succinctly wrote, put selfish interest above those of “trees and children,” or nature and people. Their ideas hid their practice of treating nature as a free warehouse for goods and a free sink for disposal of noxious byproducts. Children and families were also dispensable. Engels called out the owning class as both immoral and inefficient: immoral because trees and children are essential for human growth and happiness; and inefficient because trees and children are the most productive of resources if their inherent value is respected and accounted for in political economy.

Engels worked as a mill manager, but spent his free time with the workers, rather than the owners, who were his father’s friends and partners. He recognized and provided statistical documentation of the new class of workers emerging; their conditions, fears, aspirations, democratic organizations, and how they cared for their own with the meager resources they had. He studied closely and categorized their struggles through crime, strikes and riots. Unlike other contemporary observers, he realized the potential power of democratically organized and self-aware workers, and saw it as a positive force for change. He incorrectly assessed that radical change was imminent.

Engels was a very accomplished autodidact; he had conquered Hegel and other philosophers in his teenage years. Having graduated from philosophy, he proceeded to look at the facts on the ground. Even the work Engels did while he was Marx’s graduate research assistant still impacts our thought. His book on the rifle in 1864 won the prize as the best book of its kind in 1964. His military analysis of the US Civil War, written in Europe, is still studied today, as are his manuals for the defense of Paris during the 1871 Commune: Lenin and Trotsky used them in the urban warfare in Russia of 1905, the dry run for the successful revolution of 1917. Engels’ inquiry into the evolutionary theories of Darwin (competitive naturalism) versus Kropotkin (cooperative naturalism) continues to inform modern scholars. The most prominent evolutionary biologist and science writer of our time, Stephen Jay Gould, considered Engels’ The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man the most important work in rejecting the “idealistic” and “Western” prejudice regarding the primacy of the brain in human evolution. Engels’ analytical writings on women and the family are also the subjects of conferences and colloquia to this day. His Origin of the Family presented evolutionary anthropology that tied family history to economic history in a linear, causal relationship. The 1884 book serves as a primer for his and Marx’ theory of the family.

In some matters of deep philosophy, Engels struggled without Marx to guide him. Some historians trace the origins of Soviet Totalitarianism to Engels’ concept of dialectical materialism, a term he never uttered or wrote. In fact, Engels is to Soviet Totalitarianism as Christ is to the Spanish Inquisition.

Engels understood the facts of capitalism; he even saw the basic structure of society that it created — the state captured by the owning class. He felt unable, however, to put his ideas into a historic or scientific framework. Engels was a true heir to the Enlightenment. He needed to use science to conquer religion and bogus philosophy. Engels and Marx grew up in Westphalia in the Rhineland, the outer reaches of Napoleon’s empire, as part of a generation deeply influenced by freeing intellectual influences of the Great French Revolution. Heir as he was to the Enlightenment, Engels rebelled at the overemphasis on individualism, and held community and social commitment as inalienable aspects of human happiness.

Engels needed Marx to scientifically confirm his moral insights. Marx needed Engels to be his remarkably gifted researcher. Engels would learn ancient languages so that he could detect and explain land ownership and social relations to Marx. When Marx would marvel at his ability to learn languages quickly, in the evenings after a full day’s work at the mills, Engels would quip, “it is not hard work, I enjoy it.” Marx also needed Engels’ friendship and generosity to survive.

Few people actually read Marx: many found him too confusing. Marx’s prose was often a patchwork of passages written by his current philosophical enemies. One had to be familiar with the work of these enemies in order to comprehend Marx’s attacks. Marx’s economic writings in Das Kapital (completed by Engels after Marx’ death), were undecipherable; Das Kapital remains important today because of its brilliant and invaluable depiction and analysis of history, literature, art and psychology.

Engels’ writing was clear and popular in style, where Marx’s was verbose and full of vitriol. Engels wrote the first draft of The Holy Family. It was 12 pages. Marx returned to him a 300-page manuscript that bordered on diatribe. There were always contradictions to interpret within Marx’s work. Scholars shied away from discussions with this mean-spirited curmudgeon; he eviscerated any who disagreed with him, including former allies and teachers.

Engels wanted an ounce of action rather than a ton of theory. In 1848, when the democratic nationalist revolutions erupted throughout Europe, Marx went to the printing press. Engels went to the front, where he fought bravely and led military actions. Engels transformed dense prose into simpler messages. His use of biological similes (such as the withering away of the state, and violence as the midwife of revolution) captivated the working public’s imagination and admiration. This popularity, coupled with his cunning political skill, allowed Engels to win the 20-year struggle against Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany. In 1870, Bismarck outlawed the openly Marxist German Social Democratic Party, which had some 500,000 members. By 1890, after Bismarck’s fall, the party’s membership had grown to four million. With his prestige and power to persuade workers of all nations, Engels could have stopped the world war he predicted in 1888. He died in 1895, however, leaving his German Social Democratic Party and all the others (except the Danish) in the wilderness. These organizations eventually fell victim to World War I in 1914. This event caused by the combined forces of industrial capitalism and the remnants of feudal monarchies, killed a generation of Europe’s working people; never before seen in history. The war unleashed technological savagery whose devastating consequences remain to this day, as we still await the end of what Engels called the prehistory of the human race and the dawning of true human history: a history in which humans are allowed, as part of nature, to achieve their full potential. The failure of leadership in the Social Democratic movement was the greatest moral failure of the left in history.

Engels’ ideas are important today because the ravages of capitalism that Engels saw in 1840s Manchester are still with us. The support system of industrial capitalism is based on human and environmental exploitation around the world. This machinery now threatens to contaminate with industrial waste the very air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat beyond human capacity to survive. The system sustains itself on the joyless labor of hundreds of millions of workers living on subsistence wages.

Engels’ proposed solutions, as well as his observations, are still pertinent today. Engels pointed out that productivity increases when natural resources and open space are respected, and when workers are given decent food, water, education, housing and medical care. If these conditions are not met, needless hardship will weaken the workforce physically and psychologically. Engels was a zero waste thinker. He taught that the byproduct of one factory should serve as the feedstock of another, and that organic matter must be returned to the land to preserve fertility. Small farms, he explained to Marx, are the best way to accomplish this. He advised that industry should be decentralized and integrated throughout the world, with each region capable of its own production, distribution and consumption, to the greatest extent possible.

Under capitalism, Engels believed that “women were the proletariat’s proletariat,” and that a society that does not protect women and the family is unworthy of survival. Women, according to Engels, hold up more than half the world. In his view, a man who did not recognize the importance of independent women could never reach his full capacity.

In an essay he sent to Marx in 1843, Engels concluded that capitalism is inefficient because it does not invest in the two most productive things on earth: trees (nature) and children (the next generation). For these reasons, he stated, capitalism is morally bankrupt. He identified unions, worker cooperatives (production and consumption), civic associations and credit unions as the institutions forming the bedrock of a cooperative industrial society.

Without the transformation of industry that he assumed was inevitable, Engels believed industrial capitalism would destroy the world, its nature and its people. He hoped working people and people with common sense could drive a stake into the heart of this monster and reform industrial production and relations for good. If not, Engels foresaw, giant corporations as the only citizens of the world.

Annie Leonard stands for, and works for, exactly these principles. She is an international organizer on environment and labor issues — the very issues that catapulted Engels to world fame. When we put her characteristics and Engels side by side we can see that they were both self-sacrificing, both combine theory and practice and listen to and speak to regular people. Both are strategic. Both are optimistic. Both interconnect ecological and labor issues.

The Story of Stuff is radical in that it deals with the very same causes that emerged 300 years ago when unregulated capitalism first burst upon the world. Annie Leonard has identified problems of rampant consumption, and its impact on nature and people. The Story of Stuff opens the door to inquiry among people young and old. The story leads directly to the solutions that the grassroots recycling movement has found and continues to implement. These successes are being replicated throughout the US, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, and California to Maine. Zero Waste (90% diversion from incineration and landfill disposal) is an achievable and necessary goal for the US economy and for the entire planet. Recycling and composting are the foundation of a safe and ample future for all.

Annie Leonard’s goal is to change people’s consciousness and promote economic investment patterns that are good for people and nature, not billionaires and concentrated corporations. Her work points out that the mundane world of garbage is a clue to, and a powerful tool for, sustainability throughout our political economy. She reflects the values of our widespread and deeply rooted US recycling movement.

Conclusion: There is no latter-day version of Karl Marx that springs immediately to mind — but Annie Leonard could well be a latter-day Frederick Engels.

Annie Leonard is on the right course, and bringing along many others using her talent for communicating with the public, especially young people. Her message is straightforward and transparent: By using resources efficiently, we can create a new industrial economy that does not threaten the earth or its people. This is an economic argument as well as a moral argument: it is the same one presented by Engels 150 years ago, as modern capitalism first started to flex its growing muscles and implement its powers of mass persuasion.

Thanks again, Annie.

Neil Seldman is co-founder and president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Since 1974, ILSR has developed and implemented scores of policies, programs and enterprises that promote sustainable local use of raw materials. Recycling and economic development have become standard planning tools as a result of Seldman’s 35 years of work in the field. He was the first to recognize the fiscal danger of waste incineration, and he pioneered the organization of citizens, elected officials and small businesses owners to prevent their implementation, thus opening the door for more cost-effective and environmentally sound alternatives. Seldman’s business experience comes from factory management and industrial training. He is also a trained political theorist who has taught university-level history and political science. He is a postdoctoral student of the history of ideas.

For references and footnotes, contact the author at



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Karl Marx: Social & Political Thought, Shlomo Avineri

The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstein

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Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels

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Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, John Bellamy-Foster

Marxism, George Lictheim

Engels, Manchester and The Working Class, Stephen Marcus

Frederick Engels, David McLellan

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Frederick Engels, Gustav Meyer

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Engels: The Other Marxist, Terry Pascalef

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Dialectical Materialism, Gustav Wetter