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Ladies and Gentlemen,
I warmly welcome you to Wuppertal, the birthplace of Friedrich Engels. There is no better place for a scholarly and scientific engagement with Engels’s relevance today.
In the 19th century Barmen and the neighbouring town of Elberfeld were an industrial boomtown in a Germany that was still largely agrarian.
Smoking factory chimneys and a Wupper river stained black by chemical waste bore witness to the destructive exploitation of nature in unbridled capitalism.
New modes of production like the capitalist division of labour transformed the value of work. The cities of the Wupper were a magnet for those seeking happiness but who found only poverty and misery.
In the valley the situation of the working classes became more acute while a few accumulated wealth. Social opposites were in direct collision.
It was in this environment that the modern social movements emerged. And manufacturing family Engels was right in the middle of it all.
Engels is part of the history of our town. He shaped our town and it shaped him.
When you journey with the Schwebebahn through the valley you can discover many traces of our industrial past across the urban landscape.
Thinker. Doer. Wuppertaler. This is how Wuppertal’s greatest son is described in the bicentennial programme. In about 120 events the city of Wuppertal commemorates the great philosopher and wayfarer with Karl Marx. This international congress is one of the highlights of our anniversary year Engels 2020.
Remembering Friedrich Engels of course also means remembering Karl Marx. Engels’ place cannot be reduced to a supporting role. In this bicentennial year he will be shown to be an independent personality who in no way just plays “second fiddle” to Marx. He was a source of ideas, an organizational force and a strategic mind.
Friedrich Engels was already an uncomfortable presence within his lifetime. He is still an uncomfortable presence today. His ideas have influenced the 19th and 20th century like no other – both for the better and for the worse.
He was the ideological pioneer of the worker’s movement. Later accomplishments such as the abolition of child labour, the eight-hour day, protection against unfair dismissal and worker participation were inspired by his thinking.
But there is another side: often interpreted, misunderstood and abused, the spectre of communism spread great terror worldwide.
The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat did not lead to the liberation of workers in the DDR and the Soviet Union but to political paternalism and oppression. Even today authoritarian regimes legitimate their claim to power with his critique of society.
But despite all the thoroughly justified criticism of his thought, it would be wrong to hold Engels responsible for all later socialisms and Marxisms.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what has Engels still to say to us today?
With digitalization and globalization, we stand at the threshold of a new industrial revolution that may lead to social upheavals like those of 200 years ago.
Will the digital economy bring progress for all or will power and profits again accumulate only for the few?
What are the consequences of growing social inequality for our democratic system when possibilities of participation increasingly depend on socio-economic status?
Have we long since overstepped the limits of growth because climate change threatens our natural livelihood?
We know that technological progress does not automatically lead to social progress. Digitalization harbours many opportunities for making our world better. Of a more resource-efficient production. But it puts pressure on labour. Worker participation, protection against unfair dismissal and social security are no longer envisaged in this brave new world of technological platforms.
How can the digital world be shaped such that progress is not bought at the price of the exploitation of human beings and nature? In the Engels year, we will explore these questions.
Of course, the celebrations are not to be neglected. Engels was a bon vivant who knew how to enjoy life. You are welcome to follow his example. Wuppertal has much to offer in this regard.
I wish you a very informative and insightful congress. Be sure to retain good memories of Wuppertal and do come back!
(translated by A. Daly)