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Friedrich Engels: Because "Liberated" Women Are Easier
Engels may have waxed poetic about sexual freedom being the fast track to women’s equality and independence, but his playboy attitude often victimized the women closest to him.
Engels was the son of a wealthy cotton textile manufacturer, which afforded him a lavish lifestyle away from the judgmental eyes of his conservative Prussian family. Disillusioned with the riches provided by his religious, bourgeoisie father - and rather than “toil away” in the offices of his father’s thread mill - he strived to radicalize the poor. As a means to that end, he spent countless hours observing the poor in the slums of Manchester, England. It was there that he met Mary Burns.
Engels suggested many times that he loved the company of women above all else. Indeed, he had many lovers and often hired prostitutes. In the more prudish early 20th century, historians stated that Mary Burns was a factory worker; evidence strongly suggests, however, that she was a prostitute.
As a champion for the poor, Engels probably witnessed, firsthand, the drawbacks of working as a prostitute in the slums of Manchester. You could think that, because of his ideology, he would not demand that any worker remain in crushing poverty. You could even think that, given the tragic conditions of Manchester’s slums, he would have strived to financially better his lover’s abysmal life. If nothing else, you could think that Engels would have found her a decent place to live.
In keeping with the slumming lifestyle, however, Engels, the ever-consummate bourgeoise, kept two residences; one in the slum, and one in the “respectable” part of Manchester. Of course, Manchester’s slums were awful; crime and disease raged out of control in the mostly Irish districts. If you didn’t have to live there, you wouldn’t. It was so rough, in fact, that historians have noted that a fresh, young man like Friedrich Engels would have had difficulty walking one city block without being beaten and robbed. It was only Mary’s companionship and guidance that allowed Engels to tour those rough slums; guidance that went unrecognized in his writing.
It could be argued that Engels simply stuck to his philosophical guns. But closer examination suggests that he may have just been a jerk. He never took any step to legitimize his relationship with her. Not only did he refuse to give in to a “capitalist” marriage, a societal structure he surmised existed only for the sake of wealth transference and stroking the father’s ego, but he hid his relationship with Mary from all but his closest confidants for the better part of twenty years! Never mind that this “societal construct” would have improved her life tremendously; it also would have imposed strong, unwanted sanctions on his roaming ways.
And again: Many historians believe that without Mary, Engels would not have lasted an hour in those slums. And nary a mention of her in any of his writings.
In addition to the rampant cheating, Engels would often disappear for months or even years at a time. It has been said that it was not the open relationship, but those absences, that greatly upset Mary. Marx’s wife noted that the younger, happier Mary soon faded away; she became an alcoholic in her later years.
Engels’ preoccupation with sex is clear in the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Strangely, his focus is on women needing to have more sex, both in and out of marriage, rather than expecting men to temper their worldly passions. His greatest error is thinking that women have the same biological sex drive as men. Sadly, he completely avoids the very real consequences of sex, such as venereal disease, pregnancy or psychological isolation; all issues that burden women more than men. There is also a dig at homosexuals, and no mention of his stance on rape or incest.
The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State seems to be Engels’ way of justifying his laissez-faire, playboy lifestyle. Marxists would do better to stick with Marx’s few writings on the topics of marriage and family. Marx greatly loved his wife, and doted on his three daughters. And unlike Engels, Marx wasn’t galavanting all over Europe with disadvantaged women, exploiting them for his own personal pleasures.