Friedrich Engels — “Suppose I want to change things? Then what?”

Friedrich Engels, 1840

One day when he was just six years old, Friedrich Engels, the son of a prosperous textile manufacturer, was given a tour of his father’s factory. The young Engels was profoundly disturbed by the awful working conditions with which the employees (many of them scarcely older than himself) had to cope. To his stern father he said nothing but, returning home, he pleaded with his mother: “Must I, too, go to work soon in the factory?” he cried.

“No, my dear, thank God you won’t have to,” she answered. “You can be glad that the factory belongs to us.”

“And what about the children?” he asked. “Are they glad?”

“No, Friedrich, not like you. But it’s better for you not to trouble your little head about it. No one can change things, even you.”

Engels slept only fitfully that night, and asked his mother upon waking: “Mother, suppose I want to change things? Then what?”


Source: The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes,
Clifton Fadiman (ed.);
attributed by them to
G. Pijet,
Duell mit der Vergangenheit

I know that the fall of the Soviet Empire is supposed to have shown that their form of Communism has been refuted — and that unlimited, uncaring, unaware Capitalism is now known to be the only valid form of life.

Are there other possibilities?

Or other ways of thinking about it where a simplistic duality between Capitalism and Communism isn’t the only question that makes sense?

Like the young Engels, my question hasn’t been answered:

. . . suppose I want to change things? Then what?

To put it in the words of Engels’s collaborator,

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

— Karl Marx;
11th Thesis on Feuerbach

Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.

— Karl Marx
Thesen über Feuerbach, 11

Marx stretched the point considerably when he imagined that the changes he was so ready to move forward on were the right ones.

Were Marx or Engels wrong to question? To want answers that could actually be used — to make things better?

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