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The Frock-Coated Communist: the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane, 4

The name of Friedrich Engels was once famous throughout the world, given to towns and streets, and to ships and railway engines. Years ago, I found his portrait displayed in a peasant’s hut on the mountain border between Vietnam and Laos. His name was umbilically attached to his more famous philosophical collaborator, as though they were a respectable 19th-century department store: Marshall & Snelgrove, Fortnum & Mason, Marx & Engels. His life and times were evoked in numerous well-researched biographies, half a dozen in the past half-century. And then, quite suddenly, he disappeared from view. As occurred to political dissidents in the old Soviet Union, he became a non-person, someone who not only had ceased to exist, but had never existed.

Tristram Hunt, a writer with a talent for bringing historical subjects to the attention of a media culture that is usually history-averse, has set himself the difficult task of resurrecting this obliterated figure, and he struggles (though with little original research) to find a reason for giving us yet another biography. He seeks to recover Engels’s reputation from those who have portrayed him as responsible for Stalinist excesses, and he suggests ambitiously that a fresh examination of the works of Engels and Marx “can offer not just an insightful critique of global capitalism but new perspectives on the nature of modernity and progress, religion and ideology, colonialism and ‘liberal interventionism’, global financial crises, urban theory, feminism, even Darwinism and reproductive ethics”. These are heavy-duty claims that might look good in a newspaper article but they are not easy to substantiate and make readable in a book.

For, with the collapse of communism, little remains of its progenitors other than a certain antiquarian fascination. Is it useful to believe that the impending collapse of capitalism will lead us back to the utopian debates of the 19th century? Perhaps, but shorn of its intrinsic interest as the life of a man who, with his ideological partner, created a philosophy that transformed half the world, a biography of Engels is about as immediately relevant today as one of Joseph Smith, Jr and the Book of Mormon, or Mary Baker Eddy and the birth of Christian Science, or of other 19th-century figures (such as Hong Xiu­quan of the Taiping Rebellion) who invented new religions just as Engels and Marx were laying the foundation stones of “dialectical materialism” and “scientific” socialism.

Engels was, of course, an interesting and unusual 19th-century figure, not merely the first codifier and promoter of “Marxism”, but also a prominent participant in the progressive movement that led to the establishment of socialism in Britain – and to a concern not just with “the working class”, but with “the poor”. An émigré revolutionary from Germany, he established himself in Manchester as the accountant of his family firm, and in 1844, at the age of 24, published a pioneering study of the poor during the Industrial Revolution, The Condition of the Working Class in England. He warmed himself before the embers of Chartism, fought on the German barricades in 1848, and devoted the rest of his life to being the collaborator, critic and translator of his fellow émigré Karl Marx.

Comfortably off, though not seriously rich, Engels selflessly funded Marx and Marx’s family, enabling Marx to research and write his seminal work Das Kapital. A “champagne socialist” avant la lettre (although his favourite tipple was Pilsner), Engels was a frock-coated pillar of Mancunian society, and enjoyed a good day’s hunting – he found it “the best school of all” for revolutionary warfare.

Yet, throughout his life, like all good 1848ers (rather like the 1968ers), Engels believed in the continuing possibility of revolution if the economic times were right. From his vantage point in the Manchester cotton trade, he drew comfort from every downturn, bad for his firm but encouraging for the imminent upheaval. In 1856, he foresaw catastrophe: “This time there’ll be a Dies Irae such as has never been seen before; the whole of Europe’s industry in ruins, all markets overstocked . . . all the propertied classes in the soup, complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and profligacy to the nth degree.”

Alas, Engels was wrong, and even he ruefully acknowledged that the proletariat had been demoralised by the long preceding period of prosperity. Indeed, his predictions were often wrong. For a brief moment in 1866 he was the “military correspondent” of the Manchester Guardian, and just before the Prussian army crushed the Austrians at Königgrätz he informed its readers of the coming Prussian defeat.

He also gave voice to some singularly reactionary pronouncements, typical of the age in which he lived, although his views were not held by everyone. He rejoiced in the French conquest of Algeria and the destruction of the Bedouin. He thought it nothing more than “unfortunate” that “splendid California” had been taken away from “the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it”. He had ill-disguised contempt for indigenous peoples and was viciously anti-Slav. “I am enough of an authoritarian to regard the existence of such aborigines in the heart of Europe as an anachronism . . . They and their right of cattle-stealing will have to be mercilessly sacrificed to the interest of the European proletariat.” The next world war, he noted cheerfully, “will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.”

Hunt does not seem to mind these aberrations, pointing out that Engels later changed his mind and became an advocate of colonial resistance. He reserves his criticism for lesser faults, erecting a caricature portrait of Engels as a prosperous mill owner and womaniser. He makes endless schoolboy references to Engels as “the legendary Lothario”, the “skirt-chaser” and “something of a sexual predator”. His youthful enthusiasm for fencing is described as a “testosterone-ridden practice”. Hunt writes of “the carnal delights” of Paris, where Engels had spent “his raffish days in boudoirs and brothels”, and even poor Marx is accused of “taking advantage” of the maid. This, though true, is not serious history but journalistic tittle-tattle. The best parts of Hunt’s book concern the evocation of London and Manchester, the subject of his earlier (and far better) book on Victorian cities, Building Jerusalem. Maybe he finds it easier to write about cities than about real people.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek