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New books reveal Friedrich Engels’ revolutionary life

Engels: A Revolutionary Life, by John Green, Artery Publications, 2008.

Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, by Tristram Hunt, Macmillan/Metropolitan, 2009. (First published in Britain as The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels.)

Reviewed by Ian Angus

August 24, 2009 -- Socialist Voice -- Most people on the left know that Friedrich Engels was co-author of the Communist Manifesto and Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator. But few of today’s radicals know much more than that about the man who built barricades and fought a guerrilla war in Germany in the 1848-49 revolution, the indefatigable organiser who played a decisive role in building the Marxist current from a handful of exiles in the 1850s into the dominant trend in the international working-class movement by the time of his death in 1895.

They can scarcely be blamed for their lack of knowledge: it hasn’t been easy to learn about Engels’ life. In the 110 years after he died, only two substantial biographies were published in English – by Gustav Mayer in 1936 and by W.O. Henderson in 1967 – and both have long been out of print.

So socialists can only be pleased by the arrival of two new biographies of Karl Marx’s comrade, and indeed, these books have been warmly welcomed by socialist reviewers. However, our pleasure at the publication of two books on a neglected socialist leader should not blind us to the fact that neither is the comprehensive study that Engels really deserves.

Both are accounts of Engels’ life – not his life and ideas. Each discusses aspects of his political views and briefly summarises some of his major works, but neither does so in detail. That’s a serious weakness in biographies of a man who, as Green writes, “enjoyed nothing more than a lively debate, the clash of ideas and argument”.

We can hope that other writers will correct the balance, but for now these are the most accessible accounts we have of Engels’ life. They cover similar ground, of course, but they differ in emphasis. Green focuses on Engels as a builder and leader of the revolutionary left, while Hunt stresses his personal life, particularly the personal and political sacrifices he made to support Marx.

Engels: A Revolutionary Life

All by itself, John Green’s account of Engels’ involvement in the 1848-49 revolutions in France and Germany make Engels: A Revolutionary Life worth reading. Anyone who thinks of Engels only as a grey-bearded socialist elder will be surprised and inspired by this account of a twenty-something activist who put his life on the line for his ideas.

Green also describes Engels’ role in building and guiding the international socialist movement in the last two decades of his life. From his home in London, Engels kept up a voluminous correspondence in multiple languages – he prided himself on always responding in the languages of his correspondents – answering questions, advising and criticising.

Green is critical of the role Marx and Engels played in debates in the workers' movement, complaining of their “almost pathological resistance” to ideas other than their own.

In their intolerance of differing approaches to creating the basis for a socialist society and their vituperative lashing of those who think differently, one can see the germ of the sectarian in-fighting, the dogmatism and intolerance of dissent that will plague communist movements of the twentieth century.

And yet Green admits that what he calls their “perpetual cavilling and proffering of advice” to the German socialists did “persuade the party eventually to adopt many of their fundamental principles”. Obviously Marx and Engels were doing something right!

What Green fails to understand is that far from presaging the sectarianism of later grouplets, in most of these disputes Marx and Engels were arguing against the sectarians of their day. They were intolerant of those who tried to divert the workers’ movement onto side roads and dead ends, and they argued strongly that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”.

Green says that his goal was to “rescue the man Friedrich Engels from the suffocating embrace of academia and to remove the layers of clutter and detailed overload that have kept him hidden”. Despite its political limitations, Engels: A Revolutionary Life largely does that, providing a valuable portrait of a man who committed himself to the revolutionary cause in his early 20s and never looked back.

US edition.

Marx’s General

From a strictly political perspective, the strongest part of Marx’s General, which was published in England as The Frock-Coated Communist, is its discussion of the philosophical debates in Germany in the early 1840s. Hunt’s account of the intense intellectual ferment from which Marxism emerged is the clearest and most concise I’ve read.

But his main focus is “the rich contradiction and limitless sacrifice which marked [Engels'] long life” – in particular, the years from 1851 to 1869, when Engels was employed in his family’s cotton business, doing work he hated intensely, in order to support Marx while the latter researched and wrote Capital. For nearly 19 years, Engels held his tongue in Manchester business circles during long working days, while meeting (and carousing) with socialists and other working-class militants late into the night.

Hunt, it must be said, sees this as a greater contradiction than Engels himself did, but his account does illuminate just how committed Engels was to his and Marx’s joint lifetime project.

Hunt’s focus on Engels’ personal life occasionally leads him into sensationalism. As a young man in France and Belgium, Engels wrote that he enjoyed the company of “grisettes”, which Hunt inaccurately translates as “prostitutes”. Grisettes were actually young working-class women, mainly in the garment industry, who were active in bohemian and left circles. As in the 1960s, an open attitude towards sex was common in the European left in the 1840s, but only conservative prigs and prudes – people Engels detested – equated sexual freedom with prostitution.

Like Green, but with much greater indignation, Hunt repeats the often-told story that Marx had an illegitimate son in 1851, and that Engels pretended to be the father to protect Marx’s marriage. Only a reader who goes to the sources cited in Hunt’s footnotes will learn that the entire story is based on one letter written by an unreliable witness in 1898 – and that other evidence makes the story unlikely. (See

Fortunately, salacious gossip doesn’t dominate Marx’s General, which in total shows a very human and humane man who loved good companions, good food, good drink and great ideas – a man whose life gives the lie to reactionary claims that socialists are cheerless fanatics.

Engels versus Marx?

In the 20th century, Engels was frequently accused of revising, watering down, or otherwise corrupting Marxism. Depending on which critic you read, Engels was guilty of being too Hegelian or not Hegelian enough, of excessive scientism or not understanding science, of responsibility for social-democratic electoralism or for Stalinist totalitarianism.

As Sebastiano Timpanaro wrote in 1970, it seems that radical academics always start by blaming Engels for the parts of Marxism they disagree with:

In all of these operations, there is a need for somebody on whom everything which Marxists, at that particular moment, are asking to get rid of can be dumped.… Marx turns out to be free of all these vices, provided one knows how to ‘read’ him. It was Engels who, in his zeal to simplify and vulgarize Marxism, contaminated it.(On Materialism)

Since neither of the new biographies tries to provide a thorough account of Engels’ ideas, it isn’t surprising that neither deals in depth with such charges.

John Green is agnostic on the issue. He accurately describes the Marx-Engels relationship as “a close and long-term collaboration … an apparently perfect symbiosis”, but promptly qualifies that by reporting that nevertheless “there are those who claim to recognise significant and far-reaching differences between the thinking of the two men”. He summarises some critics’ views, but doesn’t evaluate their criticisms. Would Marx have agreed with what Engels wrote in his controversial Dialectics of Nature? Green just says “we can never know”.

Surprisingly, given that his main interest is Engels’ personality and lifestyle, Tristram Hunt handles this issue much more decisively. He insists that Anti-Dühring, often singled out as proof that Engels misunderstood Marxism, is “the expression of authentic, mature Marxist opinion”, and he ridicules the claim some have made that Marx remained silent about Engels’ errors in order to keep his friendship:

Whatever mechanical revisions happened to Marxism in the twentieth century, it is a misreading of the Marx-Engels relationship to suggest either that Engels knowingly corrupted Marxian theory or that Marx had such a fragile friendship with him that he (Karl Marx!) could not bear to express a disagreement. There is no evidence that Marx was ashamed or concerned about the nature of Engels’ popularization of Marxism.

We’ll have to wait for a comprehensive defence of Engels, but for now, this response is right on the mark.

Which ‘life’ to choose?

After decades in which there was no life of Engels in print in English, suddenly there are two, with different strengths. Neither is perfect, but both will help to move Engels out of Marx’s shadow and into centre stage where he belongs.

Hunt is an effective writer whose portrait of Engels really brings the man to life. Still, Engels was above all a political thinker and activist, so Hunt’s repeated dismissals of political disputes as pointless squabbling reveal a serious lack of sympathy with his subject. That’s also reflected in his improbable conclusion that Engels would have supported Russia’s Mensheviks against Lenin.

Green is much better on Engels’ role as a revolutionary activist and movement builder, and he devotes more time to Engels’ ideas, although not always insightfully. Unfortunately, his book is not as well written: the narrative jumps confusingly back and forth in time, and Green’s decision to write entirely in the present tense is a constant distraction.

Engels: A Revolutionary Life is available from Resistance Books. Both can be purchased from other online booksellers.

* * *

Some other socialist reviews of these books

Engels: A Revolutionary Life

Marx’s General (The Frock-Coated Communist)


A scurrilous ‘biography’ of Engels by a New Labour ‘historian’


Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Tristram Hunt's Engels Biography: "A deliberate hatchet job"

Frock-Coated New Labour Historian Tristram Hunt's life of Engels

Two reviews below - coming from different directions within the labor movement - take on Tristram Hunt's biography of Frederick Engels. The defense of Engels I have most appreciated is excerpted here: JR


A scurrilous ‘biography’ of Engels by a New Labour ‘historian’.

The ‘historian’ Tristram Hunt is a clean-cut, good-looking bloke with a host of imposing academic qualifications (Trinity, Cambridge; University of Chicago). He now teaches at Queen Mary College, University of London, writes for the broadsheets and regularly turns up as a TV personality-pundit. To add even more bourgeois lustre to this persona, his father was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 2000; and in 2007, Tristram Hunt stood for selection in a safe Labour seat in Derby, only to be pipped at the post by the even more oleaginous Stephen Twigg.

Disappointed as he was, the ambitious Tristram Hunt remains a new Labour man, hostile not only to Marxism, but even to the labour movement. During the current world catastrophe, he is to be found in the pages of the Guardian pontificating against ‘Islamo-fascism’ and in favour of the zionist state, while playing to the softest of the soft and confused left by showing an interest in radical martyrs of the past and some mild concern for the present-day victims of a market economy he refuses to see beyond.

So what is this hodge-podge of a Blairite ‘thinker’ doing writing a biography of Frederick Engels? Easy-peasy. He is making a mockery of Engels’ life and work, that’s what; and he is doing it with a will and a purpose.

The lackey-historians of the bourgeoisie have long attacked Lenin, Stalin and the achievements of the Soviet Union, and recently (July 2009) the representatives of the bourgeoisie sitting in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have felt its propaganda strong enough to actually pass a resolution equating Stalinism with Nazism.

After such an outrage, a further bourgeois attack on the actual founders of socialism was inevitable. Make no mistake, Tristram Hunt’s nasty little book is but another in the series of onslaughts on Engels and Marx, not to mention Lenin, Stalin and Mao, masquerading as honest bourgeois scholarship.

Tristram uses the snake-like technique of attacking Engels by purporting to make him ‘more human’, to give him an honest ‘warts and all’ profile. Superficially, that sounds fair enough, and when it comes to saying that Engels liked a drink, went fox hunting and earned a good living managing one of his father’s factories, it is in truth fair enough. However, when it comes to (for example) accusing Engels of actually raping Alicia Hess (wife of Moses Hess), we have to question Tristram’s sources as well as his motives. (Incidentally for the ‘rape’ of Alicia Hess, Tristram Hunt has no sources!)

Throughout the book, Hunt works with innuendo and confabulation, from the very first page where he tells us that Engels had a taste for “expensive women”, and just a little later where Hunt implies through the technique of ‘guilt by association’ that Engels had the same interest in pornography as Edgar Bauer, Hunt impressionistically, but effectively (to those who do not know much – if anything – about Engels) paints a picture of Engels as a self-indulgent Lothario, or, to use Hunt’s exact words, “Engels was a sexual predator”.

The book contains a constant character assassination that pervades each and every statement made about Engels’ actual work. There is not time and space here to ‘toothcomb’ the whole of Hunt’s magnum opus, but a look at his ‘discussion’ around The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State reveals the full putrid nature of his agenda.

Hunt tells us apropos of The Origin that, far from being interested in women’s equality, Engels was actually a deep misogynist. A pretty startling accusation, and one you would think a historian might like to support with evidence. Yet what evidence of Engels’ misogyny does Hunt give us? Well, he tells us in passing (and without any explanation) that Engels used to call Annie Besant, Marion Crawford and Gertrude Guillaume Schack, “Mother Besant”, “Mother Crawford” and “Mother Schack” respectively.

What Hunt does not tell his readers is that Engels had very good reasons for disdaining the Malthusian anti-socialist Annie Besant, (ii) the bourgeois-patriotic journalist Marian Crawford, and even the Contagious Diseases Acts-obsessed Gertrude Guillaume Schack.

Without giving any details of Engels’ ideological differences with these three women, Hunt just tells us that Engels’ dislike of them was pure misogyny. Hunt then goes on to give the coup de grace and tell us that Engels was opposed to the women’s suffrage movement. What he carefully omits is that Engels’ position was the same as every other Marxist, or even socialist, at the time. Engels was a supporter of adult suffrage for all men and women, but he was certainly opposed to the demands of the bourgeois women’s suffrage movement, since Millicent Fawcett and her followers were only demanding women’s suffrage on the same property qualification basis then in operation for male voters.

Hunt, however, is well aware that he is not addressing a historically knowledgeable readership. His book is aimed at a liberal lefty, well-intentioned but relatively historically ignorant audience, who will be confused by Hunt’s description of Engels as a misogynist, opposed to women’s suffrage, and who will therefore have their previous or potential respect for one of the founding fathers of socialism undermined by such accusations.

And that, in a nutshell, is actually the aim of Hunt’s book. It is a deliberate hatchet job and it is relentless. Hunt even mentions some passing remarks Engels made against the legalisation of prostitution, since he knows this is an issue which befuddles lefty-liberal thinking now. To further put the boot in, Hunt also tells us he finds Engels’ remarks particularly ironic seeing as Engels spent so much of his youth in brothels!

A double whammy for the modern progressive audience Hunt is addressing, which is firmly against brothel frequenting, but confusingly quite often in favour of legalising prostitution. Nowhere, of course, does Hunt explain why Engels thought prostitution should be criminalised, just as nowhere does he give any evidence for Engels’ alleged brothel creeping.

It might be argued that Tristram Hunt does give some respect to Engels, as he has no truck with the idea that after Marx’s death, when Engels set to editing Marx’s papers into volumes II and III of Kapital, he deviated from Marx’s thinking, but Tristram Hunt’s game here is not to give credit to Engels but to besmirch Marx by association. Unable (at the moment) to reinvent Marx and Engels as baby-eating mass murderers (in the manner of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent infamous attack on Stalin in The Red Tsar), our bourgeois historian reinvents not just Engels, but Marx too, as a constant drunk and “shameless philanderer” (no less).

Oh, certainly (Tristram assures us), Engels did make the odd maybe even semi-original observation – Engels’ argument about the Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, for example, and there is something to be said for the work Engels put into his 1844 Condition of the Working Class in England! Hunt even concedes that Marx and Engels’ dissolute hearts might even have been in the right place (sometimes) and that they even made some very fair comment about globalisation.

Hunt further concedes (so magnanimously) that it would be unfair to blame either Marx or Engels for the doings of their “illegitimate acolytes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere”, but the over-riding message of Tristram Hunt’s oeuvre is that both Marx and Engels were a couple of psychological misfits, while their ideology is a product of its time and now only amounts to a historical curiosity – interesting, but irrelevant to the twenty-first century; a bit like John Wesley and Methodism, just (especially in Engels’ case) much sexier.

No wonder the book has been greeted with such a fanfare: it is an opening shot in bourgeois history’s latest drive to make Marxism, not threatening like Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union, but merely ridiculous.

And it is very easy to imagine The Frock-Coated Communist being made into a TV serial on similar lines to the recent Desperate Romantics about the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with a young Marx and Engels leaping around full frontal.(iii)

Make no mistake about it, The Frock Coated Communist is not just a bad book, it is a deliberate, carefully thought out piece of anti-socialist propaganda; its agenda is to undermine hope, to present Marx and Engels as buffoons, and to convince its readers that socialism and communism are at best a pipe dream, and at worst a nightmare.

Remember the name Tristram Hunt; there is a great future for him as a hired scribe, and we will be hearing more from him.

* The Frock-Coated Communist, the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt, pub Allen Lane. (In USA, Marx’s General, the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, pub Metropolitan Books.)

(ii) Annie Besant associated herself with the socialist and trade-union movements during a four-year period, 1885-9. Before 1885, she was hyper-Malthusian and anti-socialist; after 1889, she was a Theosophist and just hyper.

(iii) Tristram Hunt repeats the canard that Marx fathered a baby with Helene Demuth (the Marxes’ maid-housekeeper, and later Engels’ maid-housekeeper). This unsubstantiated rumour was put in motion by Louise Freyberger (first wife of Karl Kautsky) in 1898 once everyone concerned (Engels, Marx and Helen) was safely dead and unable to refute it. The rumour gained a purchase with some bourgeois historians who wanted to reinvent the hen-pecked Marx as something more akin to Che Guevera. Tristram Hunt uses it to blacken Marx as a Deadbeat Dad (not a good 21st century image).


An Engels for the bourgeoisie

Katherine Connelly

Tristram Hunt, The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Allen Lane, 2009), £25.00

Ten years ago Paul Foot wrote a review of Francis Wheen’s engaging and jovial, if somewhat lightweight, biography of Karl Marx. In the review he commented that while most dead left wingers are patronised and rehabilitated by the establishment, “detestation of Karl Marx…has persisted for over a hundred years”. Not so now. A systemic and global crisis of capitalism is so profound that previously smug free-marketeers are looking desperately for answers in the writings of two 19th century communists who said that capitalism is inherently unstable, that crisis is inevitable. The spectre of Marx, which for so long faced an academic wall of silence, is haunting the press, the universities, financial institutions and booklists. For one reviewer of Hunt’s book “the faddish return to Marx visible in sales of some of his books is mostly just a sign of loss of nerve”—embarrassing evidence of his class failing to keep a stiff upper lip.

Just as governments have turned to state intervention (albeit to bail out the rich) after years of the mantra “there is no alternative” to laissez-faire capitalism, so we face an ideological somersault from establishment figures who are now writing about Marxism.

Tristram Hunt is a product of this contradiction, and perhaps this is why the “contradictions of Hegelian proportions” in the public and private lives of Frederick Engels appeal to him and lie at the heart of his biography. “This was where the eye of the storm and stress really lay,” writes Hunt, “in squaring his two diametrically opposed public and private lives as exploitative cotton lord and revolutionary socialist, as frock-coated member of the upper middle class and ardent disciple of the low life”.

Engels was the gentleman in the club and the communist in the beer hall; the fine living wealthy manufacturer who lived in secret with his love, an Irish factory worker; the adrenaline-fuelled young man hunting foxes and, just a few years before, shooting from the barricades. This provides Hunt with the perfect medium to explore one of his own passions—the socio-geography of the 19th century city. Engels had unique equality of access to the two nations contained within entirely segregated cities. Hunt emphasises the influence of Engels’s lover, Mary Burns, “his underworld Persephone” who was his guide into the realm of the Mancunian working class. This allows Hunt to demonstrate that the pioneering work The Condition of the Working Class in England was not just the product of one brilliant man. Engels’s insight at the age of 24—that the working class was the class with the potential power to transform society—was a product of his real experience:

"Friedrich Engels’s two worlds—of the mill owner and Mary Burns—profoundly influenced his journey from philosophy to political economy and, in turn, had a marked effect on the emergent shape of Marxism. Uniquely, Engels was able to fuse his real experience of industrial capitalism and working class Chartist politics with the Young Hegelian tradition."

This skilful exploration of the origins of Engels’s work avoids a “great man” narrative by emphasising his intellectual debts—both to acknowledged political thinkers (Georg Hegel, Thomas Carlyle, etc) and to working class agitators including Mary Burns and the Chartists. This allows us to see what was truly creative and original in the works of Marx and Engels. By the same treatment, Hunt is able to show the immense debt that Marx owed to Engels. It is evident not just in the works that they formally co-authored. Hunt quotes Marx asking Engels the manufacturer about the practical dynamics of capitalism: “Engels’s grafting at Ermen & Engels helped to construct the empirical foundations of Das Kapital.”

Also refreshing is Hunt’s refusal to write hagiography. Engels’s sexist and racist assumptions, and his homophobia, are discussed frankly. In fact this effectively vindicates the Marxist idea that “being creates consciousness”, and also that it is engagement with class struggle that enables people to throw off the “muck of ages”—Hunt acknowledges that Engels rejected most of his racist ideas and revised his earlier contradictory attitudes to women. Indeed he subjected women’s oppression to the same method with which he explored class society and not only railed in fury against it but argued that this oppression emerged in particular historical conditions, concluding that it could also, like class society, be swept away.

All this is valuable, but there are serious flaws in Hunt’s book that impoverish his analysis. While Engels overcame his early prejudices about Irish people, Hunt continues throughout the book to apply the adjective “earthy” to the Burns sisters or, as he sometimes calls them, the “earthy Irish sisters”. More disturbing is his use of the poor journalistic trick of deciding for his readers what the best story is, rather than presenting the more uncertain but human narrative.

He has made extensive use of Yvonne Kapp’s superb biography of Eleanor Marx (1) and he references this book when he describes the fate of Frederick Demuth, the illegitimate son of Karl Marx and the family servant Helene Demuth. Frederick was fostered but Engels allowed everyone to assume he was the father. Hunt describes the “impoverished life” Frederick Demuth lived, which, reflecting the author’s own social prejudices, includes “his professional life as a skilled fitter and turner and member of the Associated Society of Engineers”.

Hunt adds that “Freddy [Demuth] and his son Harry used the tradesman’s entrance to visit… Engels, however, was always careful to absent himself on such occasions.” Kapp also tells this story but there is an important difference. She conducted the interview with Harry Demuth and she wrote that he and his father went on a Sunday to have dinner with Eleanor Marx in Engels’s house where Helene Demuth “reigned”. The “tradesman entrance” story has an entirely different genesis (unacknowledged by Hunt), which Kapp explores in a footnote. It originates in a letter by Louise Kautsky, who had a turbulent relationship with the Marx family and who was writing of an event that took place before her arrival in the Engels household. Kapp’s extensive research concludes:

"There is but a single occasion when he [Frederick Demuth] can be known for certain to have been there: on 1 July 1894 he was one of 13 signatories to a postcard sent from the Engels’s address to Mrs Liebknecht saying they were all drinking German beer while they awaited the telegram announcing the Reichstag election results.
To reference another author and deliberately distort their meaning is dishonest and lazy history. Furthermore, at times, the cost of the good yarn is a superficial analysis. However, where Hunt is weakest is in conveying the experience of workers’ struggle. This is not merely stylistic; it is ideological. In the vivid, intimate portraits in Kapp’s work lies the same sense of excitement and attention to detail that her subject, Eleanor Marx, infused her life with during her deep involvement with the New Unionism strikes in the East End of London."

Hunt, by contrast, fails to take working class subjects seriously and it produces a poor historical analysis. He dismisses the demise of Chartism as the product of “public inertia, government repression and rain”. The growth of reformism, the European context and the change in the economic climate were all apparently unimportant—or perhaps just less amusing. The 1871 Paris Commune provided Marx and Engels with some of their most concrete ideas about workers’ power and the role of the state. The Commune was, in Marx’s words, “a harbinger” but it remained isolated and the cost was horrific—a counter-revolution slaughtered tens of thousands of ordinary Parisians in just seven days.

Marx and Engels’s writings on the Commune, their contact with the survivors who fled and their celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of the Commune are dismissed by Hunt who writes that the diverse strands of socialism and anarchism in the Commune “proved a relief for Marx and Engels: when it all went wrong, there was someone else to blame”. This is cheap and dishonest. The point of analysis was, for Marx and Engels, not simply to interpret the world but to change it. Their analysis therefore reflected the actual experience of working class struggle. The Paris Commune enabled them to argue for practical aspects of proletarian dictatorship, for example the right to recall elected representatives. To insist, then, that they were interested in preserving an analysis at the expense of working class struggle is to devalue the entire point of their live’s work.

And it is precisely this, removing the element of revolution, that is distinctive in the popular resort to Marx that is taking place now. What Hunt fails to understand is that the contradictions in Engels’s life, which he finds so attractive, were created by the absence of proletarian revolution. Engels knew there was no bourgeois answer to resolve the contradictions of capitalism. He returned to business after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and he hated it. Such contradictions were forced on Engels. They were not an integrated part of his character and certainly were not celebrated by him.

This surely is why Hunt is so bitter about the Russian Revolution and again there is dishonesty in his analysis here. Hunt effectively refutes the charge from both bourgeois critics and Stalinist apologists that Engels was the architect of Stalinist determinism. He writes, “There lies an unconscionable philosophical chasm between Engelism and Stalinism.” This is an analysis developed in this journal specifically in regard to Engels. (2) While borrowing from this strand of Marxism, Hunt refuses even to engage with its analysis of October 1917, which he contends represents the distortion of Marxism into “an irreproachable dogma” and was led by “power-hungry” Lenin.

This is a biography for a bourgeoisie in crisis. “It is recent events in the world’s stock markets and banking sector which bring Engels’s criticisms so readily to the fore,” writes Hunt. But as such it is the biography of only half of Engels’s life. Ten years ago Marxism was frozen out of the mainstream. Now they are attempting to rehabilitate Marx and Engels while removing the driving force behind their ideas. It is material circumstances—the crisis of capitalism—that has caused this. It will be working class resistance to the crisis that will bring the practical application of Marxism to serious attention. It is time to listen to the gravediggers.

1: Published in two volumes as Eleanor Marx: Family Life, 1855-83 and Eleanor Marx: The Crowded Years, 1884-98.

2: See for instance, International Socialism 65-a special collection on Engels’s Marxism.

Finding Engels? GLW review of The Frock-Coated Communist

Review by Alex Miller

November 18, 2009

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels By Tristram Hunt Penguin, 2009 443 pages, $59.95 (hb)

In this entertaining and well-written biography, Tristram Hunt sets himself the task of finding out the truth about Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s life-long collaborator and friend.

Such a search is necessary, since, as Hunt explains using words from E.P. Thompson, Engels has for some time been treated as a kind of “whipping boy” who gets the blame for “any sin one chooses to impugn to subsequent Marxisms”.

For example, the fact that Lenin and Stalin and other prominent figures in the Bolshevik Party relied on the later works of Engels for their interpretation of Marx has resulted in Engels being blamed for the eventual ossification of Marxist theory under 20th Century “actually existing socialism”.

Indeed, some commentators — for example, Norman Levine — appear to come close to blaming Engels for the gulags, purges and manifold horrors of Stalinism.

In the course of countering the prevailing view, Hunt provides a detailed and often illuminating account of Engels’ life, work and milieu. Starting with his upbringing in the stuffy and cloistered Protestantism of Barmen, Gemany, Hunt takes us through Engels’ journey as a young man from romanticism to socialism, the sojourns in Manchester during which he gathered material for his The Condition of the Working Class in England, the 1848 revolutions and the collaboration with Marx on The Communist Manifesto.

He does an especially good job of describing the “self-loathing existence as a Manchester millocrat” Engels endured for the best part of two decades to finance Marx’s family while he was writing Capital. He also writes of the gargantuan labour Engels put into editing the second and third volumes of Capital after Marx’s death.

At the same time as describing the work, though, Hunt paints a vivid picture of a larger-than-life character who enjoyed nothing better than good food, drink and company. Engels comes across as he must have done to the Marx children, as a generous, loyal and convivial uncle, and a man it would be a pleasure to share a few bottles of his beloved pilsner beer with.

Hunt exonerates Engels (and Marx) from the accusation that their theories laid the groundwork for Stalin’s gulags or Pol Pot’s killing fields. They are no more to blame for them than Martin Luther is for modern-day Protestant evangelicalism or the Prophet Muhammad for the attack on the twin towers.

Nor does the “attractively non-doctrinaire thinking” of Engels bear any responsibility for the hollowing-out of what passed for Marxist theorising in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Indeed, Hunt ends with a ringing declamation of Engels’ contemporary relevance: “As our post-1989 liberal Utopia of free trade and Western democracy totters under the strain of both religious orthodoxy and free-market fundamentalism, his critique speaks down the ages: the cosy collusion of government and capital; the corporate flight for cheap labour and low skills; the restructuring of family life around the proclivities of the market; the inevitable retreat of tradition in the face of modernity, and the vital interstices of colonialism and capitalism; the military as a component of the industrial complex; and even the design of our cities as dictated by the demands of capital.”

More than anything else, the current crisis in the global capitalist financial and banking sector bears testament to the enduring importance of Engels and Marx.

I could stop there and simply commend Hunt’s biography as a good piece of work. But despite its positive qualities, it is marred by a number of unattractive features, and it’s a reviewer’s job to bring these to the attention of potential readers. I’ll pick out four.

First, despite his obvious sympathy for Engels, Hunt still succumbs to the temptation to paint his behaviour at certain points in unjustifiably negative terms.

For example, in October 1848, as reaction to the revolutions spread across Europe, Engels was expelled from Brussels by the Belgian authorities and deported to Paris.

Hunt writes: “And what did Friedrich Engels do to help see in the promised proletarian dawn? Did he return to the struggle? Propagandise in Paris? Support a workers’ defence fund? No, he got away from it all on a walking holiday.”

This is very unfair to Engels. The truth of the matter is that the Prussian authorities had just issued an arrest warrant for Engels, based on a charge of high treason.

The Belgians, while unable to extradite him to Germany because of their 1830 constitution, nonetheless wanted him off their territory and so dumped him on the French side of their border.

Unable to return to Germany, and finding Paris at that time “a dead city”, Engels decided that Switzerland was the only place that would offer him a temporary safe haven, and having no money, set out to get there on foot.

Sure, he enjoyed himself on the two-week journey and left us some evocative descriptions of the people he met and the wine he drank on the way, but that hardly merits Hunt’s crude sarcasm.

This sarcasm and lack of charity comes up at various points in the book. Marx, for example, is said to be infuriated by “proletarian authenticity”. Capital is implied to be tainted by the fact that it was written while Marx subsisted on funds secured from the exploitation of labour in the Manchester factory managed by Engels. These are just silly comments that spoil the good work Hunt does elsewhere.

Second, Hunt quite remarkably says Engels advocated a parliamentary road to socialism: “In 1891 … Engels thought democratic socialist parties could now move straight to power, via the ballot box, without having to endure the intermission of radical-bourgeois rule which had seemed necessary in the reactionary, feudal days of 1848.”

This is a travesty of Engels’ thinking, and simply equivocates on having a parliamentary majority (which can indeed be attained via participation in bourgeois democratic elections) and the establishment of socialism (which according to Engels requires the destruction — not the occupation — of the bourgeois state machinery).

Hunt thus pushes on Engels the very distortion exposed to brilliant effect by Lenin in The State and Revolution.

It also neglects Engels’ rich seam of work on the formation of the “labour aristocracy” and the limits of parliamentarism, the value of which was confirmed by the capitulation of the Second International in August 1914 (see e.g. J. Strauss, “Engels and the Theory of the Labour Aristocracy”, Links, Number 25 [January 2004]).

Third, Hunt comes across as lacking a basic political education at various points. He accepts the description of Lenin as a “power-hungry monster”. Although there are plenty of negative comments about 20th century and contemporary socialism, one would think from reading Hunt that they failed entirely to achieve anything positive.

Hunt speaks of the “brazen inhumanity of Marxism-Leninism”. This may be apt as a description of Stalin’s regime, but does it apply to contemporary Cuba?

Fourth, Hunt commits an act of blatant discourtesy when he says, “the last truly popular English-language life of Engels [was] Gustav Meyer’s seminal work of 1934”. In fact, an excellent and highly accessible biography of Engels was published in 2008, the before Hunt’s own volume (John Green, Engels: A Revolutionary Life).

Although there is much to commend in Hunt’s book, faced with a choice between the two, I would recommend the book by Green. At any rate, it is hard to believe Hunt is unaware of Green’s book, and he does himself and his readers a disservice by pretending not to know of it.

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