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.
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 http://marxmyths.org/terrell-carver/article.htm.)
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.
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Some other socialist reviews of these books
Engels: A Revolutionary Life
- Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
- A World to Win
- Morning Star and Political Affairs
Marx’s General (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.
From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #818 18 November 2009.