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The Meeting in Paris

In 1842, a young Prussian[1] cavalry officer, Friedrich, joined the textile firm of Ermen & Engels, in which his father was a partner. His father heaved a sigh of relief at his son relinquishing his revolutionary ways and starting a career in business. Little did he know, it was far from what Friedrich wanted.


Friedrich viewed it as an opportunity to witness, from close quarters, the workings of the new industrial society that was taking shape in English towns like Manchester, where Ermen & Engels operated. Manchester had emerged as one of the global nerve centres of the industrial revolution, a fast sprouting up of factories assisted in no small part by James Watt’s revolutionary steam engine. Manchester was the first among equals. In fact, it was said that there were more spindles in Manchester than there were in the rest of the world put together.


Nowhere was the effect of industrialisation more pronounced than in this English town often called ‘the cotton capital of the world’ or just ‘Cottonopolis’. Manchester provided a unique opportunity for the young revolutionary.


Over the next two years, while working as a clerk in his father’s company, Friedrich devoted many hours to researching and writing about industry and politics. He met other people who shared his views, including Mary Burns, an uneducated British factory worker with whom Engels would live happily for the next twenty years until her demise.


The worker conditions in industrial centres like Manchester were so inhuman and appalling that any moves to correct the situation fell short. Indeed, some factory owners themselves spearheaded such moves. However, the degree of exploitation was such that these moves had no effect. One such move, The Factory Act of 1819, passed to correct this exploitation, had an interesting provision: that children of nine should not be made to work more than twelve hours a day. While well meaning, this provision itself speaks of the magnitude of the despicable lifestyle that workers and their families had to endure.


Witnessing this abject poverty on one hand and the affluence of the factory owners on the other was just the fuel to foment Friedrich’s revolutionary fire. Moved by the experience, within two years of joining his father in the textile firm, Engels published the classic, ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’, condemning the factory owners for unmitigated greed and a complete disregard for the welfare of the workers who toiled in their factories.


During this time he also wrote two articles for a Paris-based publication, advocating socialism and complete abolishment of private ownership. This caught the eye of the editor of the publication. A meeting was in order.


On his way to Germany, Engels decided to stop in Paris and so, on August 28, 1844, at the Café de la Regence, Engels met the editor of this Paris-based publication. They, perhaps, had no idea that this meeting would not only change their lives forever, but the lives of millions around the world for the next hundred and fifty years. In many ways, the meeting was the starting point of a colossal political movement that would take the world by storm: communism (or socialism[2]). That meeting was between Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.


Friedrich left the factory and devoted himself to the cause of the exploited workers. Together, he and Marx wrote ‘The Communist Manifesto’, one of the most influential political manuscripts of all time, and a massive response to the inhuman worker conditions of the newly formed industrial societies. If communism was becoming a religion, then ‘workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’ was its clarion call and ‘The Communist Manifesto’ its holy writ.


This new religion advocated the passing of ownership to the society, so rewards could be distributed equitably to all the members of the society.  The Communist Manifesto unequivocally states: ‘…the theory of the communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of all private property.’


In many ways, communism or socialism, as we know it today, was conceived in that meeting in Paris between Engels and Marx. That meeting started a movement called socialism that would change the world for the next hundred and fifty years, uniting it in groups, dividing it in blocs, making it fight wars and, of course, cold wars. All this, until a huge tremor, with its epicentre in the erstwhile Soviet Union shook the very foundations of socialism.


[1] A German kingdom, in 1871, German states united in creating the German Empire under Prussian leadership. Prussia was officially abolished in 1947.

[2] As George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘socialism is the same as communism, only better English’

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