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Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
Metropolitan Books, 2009
448 pp., $35.00
Communism's Indispensable Man
Since the end of the Cold War, pious hagiographies of the founding fathers of communism have given place to a series of life histories exposing the clay feet of idols whose literal statues mostly moulder in the sculpture graveyards of the post-Soviet Eastern bloc. The earliest of these revisionist biographies was Francis Wheen's exuberantly irreverent Karl Marx: A Life in 1999, and the latest, in 2010, is Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, in which Helen Rappaport follows Vladimir Ilych around Europe before the fateful journey to the Finland Station, and shows him already the consummate practitioner of shameless manipulation and conscienceless betrayal in private as well as political affairs. Tristram Hunt's 2009 biography of Engels is another addition to this expanding genre. As with many of its predecessors, the question of whether the notorious evils of state communism can be laid at its subject's door is the real heart of the enterprise, and Hunt's answer has a twist in the tail.
The facts of Engels' life are well-known. He was born in 1820, the eldest son of a bleaching and dyeing magnate in the Rhineland town of Barmen in the Wupper Valley. He rebelled against his Pietist family while still a schoolboy, and, forbidden university by a disciplinarian father, was sent to work for a local commercial house. Military service in 1841 allowed him to escape to Berlin, where he indulged his hedonist inclinations to the full but also attended university lectures and fell in with the Young Hegelians, moving swiftly through Romanticism to revolutionary sentiments and the start of a career-on-the-side in radical journalism. The influence of Moses Hess had hardened naïve impulses into settled communist convictions by 1842, when Engels' father despatched his troublesome heir to Manchester to work for the family firm of Ermen and Engels, manufacturers of sewing thread. Pausing en route to drop in on Karl Marx, another radical journalist, for their first meeting (a disappointment ...