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Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
Tristram Hunt
Metropolitan Books, 2009
448 pp., 35.00

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Bernice Martin

Communism's Indispensable Man

The life of Friedrich Engels.

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 on both sides), Engels arrived in England believing that its advanced capitalism must be incubating imminent proletarian revolution. In Manchester he embarked on the double life he was to keep up until his retirement in 1869, dutifully playing the part of apprentice textile magnate while also secretly exploring the underbelly of the textile districts and Chartist and Owenite politics with his illiterate Irish mistress, Mary Burns (and, on her death, with her sister-successor, Lizzy).

The first fruit of this clandestine life was The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845, which established Engels' reputation as a leading communist analyst. Meanwhile, Engels and Marx met for a second time, in Paris in 1844, and found that they had, as Marx put it, arrived at the same point by a different route. The bond cemented at that meeting was never broken, and when Marx lost his Prussian citizenship and then in 1845 was deported from France, he moved to Belgium with Engels to work on their first joint publication, The Holy Family. After adventures in the European insurrections of 1848-9, the friends eventually fled to take up permanent residence in England: Marx in London and Engels, faute de mieux, back at the Ermen and Engels grindstone in Manchester. Engels continued in the firm, becoming a partner in 1864, and in 1869 he cashed in his investment and joined Marx in north London. Engels supported the Marx family financially from 1845 to the end of his life, and corresponded with his friend daily when they were apart. They founded and largely controlled the Communist International, and wrote between them the founding documents of communist theory.

This much is common knowledge, so what is new about Tristram Hunt's biography, especially given that Francis Wheen, working from the same Marx-Engels archive as Hunt, has already spilled the beans on the private lives of the duo, including Marx's illegitimate bye-blow with the housekeeper, and the social snobbery of the indigent Marx family (who refused to know Engels' common-law wives)? Let us begin from the book's title, or rather titles.

Hunt's account of Friedrich Engels' "Revolutionary Life" was first published in England as The Frock-Coated Communist, rather than Marx's General as it appears in the American edition. Both titles catch important aspects of the man, but the difference is intriguing. The English title conjures the fox-hunting Manchester cotton magnate, pillar of the Albert Club ("renowned for its smoking room, card rooms and billiard tables"), evoking the "champagne socialism" that has so often distinguished the intellectual Left. And comrade Engels certainly got through quantities of that bourgeois tipple along with oceans of Pilsner and claret, all the way from his defiantly dissolute youth to those famous Sunday afternoons when the revolutionary cadres of Europe flocked to discuss theory and tactics with "the Grand Lama of Regent's Park" over a glass (or several) in the final years of his comfortable English retirement from 1869 to his death in 1895.

The American title underlines a tougher and more contentious aspect of Engels' relation both to Marx and to the nascent communist movement, his role as political and military strategist and self-appointed enforcer, whose task was keeping both theoreticians and revolutionary activists in line with the Master's vision. This role is the real crux of Hunt's interpretation. All his adult life Engels revered, funded, protected, and served his friend and philosophical lodestar, Karl Marx, with a potent mixture of devotion and ruthlessness. The ruthlessness was routinely deployed against the Master's enemies (who had mostly started out as friends and fellow revolutionaries) but could also be turned on Marx himself, keeping his nose to the scholarly grindstone and trying to get the procrastinating Karl to publish the promised magnum opus. Not only was international communism being kept waiting, but Engels himself was under the capitalist knout, working to fund his friend until Kapital was completed, and frequently recruited to co-author the polemical tracts which Marx constantly undertook to the detriment of his progress with the Big Book. (Their arrangement irresistibly suggests the Hasidic scholar excused from having to earn a living, but with occasional Dickensian overtones that recall the poet Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, sponging on his friends on the strength of his "genius.")

Engels first acquired the sobriquet "the General" through his journalism in European socialist publications (initially ghostwritten for Marx), where he analyzed the military aspects of the 1848-9 uprisings. This "expert" military journalism was self-taught but gained color from Engels' own blooding in that evanescent revolutionary moment. In May 1848 he enlisted as impromptu aide-de-camp to August von Willich, like Engels trained in the Prussian army, and now commander of the Baden-Palatinate revolutionary army. The insurrection centered on an area where the Engels family were prominent entrepreneurs and, despite the easy defeat of the revolutionary forces, Friedrich had the compensation of embarrassing his bourgeois kin. Hunt sardonically remarks that "the General" never let anyone forget his front-line experience, however brief.

After his second meeting with Marx in Paris in 1844, Engels was never again the hero of his own life, any more than of the communist movement to which he dedicated his considerable energy, talents, and carefully targeted skill at realpolitik: he lived and died, quite deliberately, in the shadow of his friend. He even took the rap for Marx's illegitimate son (the boy was pointedly named Friedrich and "put to a trade"), only revealing the true paternity after Marx's death and just before his own. Hunt adds that Engels chose to be cremated and have his ashes scattered to the winds at sea off Beachy Head rather than occupy a tomb in Highgate that might compete with Marx's. But though Engels' preference for the shadows is a running theme of the book, Hunt makes a strong case for regarding him as a far more influential and equal partner in the development of Marx's work than it is customary to suppose, minutely documenting Engels' crucial contribution to the ideas as well as the writing, and stressing Engels' first-hand experience of industrial capitalism as indispensible to the core analysis of Kapital.

At the same time, Hunt seeks to rescue his subject from the role of all-too-convenient scapegoat for the evils of state communism. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the international Marxist intelligentsia of the 1960s had begun to reconstruct Marx, particularly by "rediscovering" the young Marx, to exculpate him from the inhuman excesses committed in his name in Stalin's Russia and, later, Mao's China and Pol Pot's Cambodia. The Marxist revisionists held Engels responsible for the totalitarian perversion of the communist ideal, particularly in popularizing and thereby rigidifying Marx's ideas into dogma. Engels not only "edited" volumes 2 and 3 of Das Kapital after Marx's death (that is, he pieced together Marx's chaotic notes and fragments into a continuous text), but he wrote the simplified popular expositions that most influenced Joseph Stalin, even inventing the term "dialectical materialism." Hunt wholly rejects the charge, insisting that Engels was always an individualist not a statist; he was curious-minded and flexible to the end; his thinking was "far more heuristic and less rigid than Marx's"; indeed, Engels "adopted something of a proto-Popperian stance on questions of scientific fallibility." He himself criticized those Marxist parties that were "turning our theory into the rigid dogma of an orthodox sect," and over time revised his earlier view that violent insurrection was necessary; the proletariat, he was persuaded, could come to power "under the form of a democratic republic." It was Engels who insisted that their theory was a critical method and work-in-progress rather than a fixed system, and it was Engels, in Hunt's view, who "understood the true face of rampant capitalism" and who thus remains a prescient critic of capitalism for the current period of global financial crisis.

One can detect an intermittent subtext in Hunt's analysis, seeing communist idealism as a secular translation of Protestant Christian visions of "the kingdom," as, indeed, Marx and Engels themselves recognized, hence their early concentration on a critique of religion. (Hunt's previous book, on the Victorian city, was called Building Jerusalem.) "Engels," Hunt writes, "retained elements of both the utopian socialist tradition (against which he had so self-consciously defined his and Marx's approach) and the Protestant eschatological inheritance he had abjured as a teenager."

This emphasis accords with Hunt's insistence that Engels cannot be blamed for the misuse others have made of his writings. But perhaps all that lets Engels off too easily. He pioneered the tactics of what became known as "entryism"; he bullied and manipulated colleagues in socialist and communist circles to get the "right" outcome; he was chronically suspicious of colleagues and saw treachery behind every intellectual disagreement. Hunt excuses these habits as merely the necessary skills of any successful politician, but they surely prefigure peculiarly unhappy aspects of communist systems.

The telegenic Hunt, privileged son of a Labour peer, has been described in the British media as "New Labour's favourite historian." Over the Easter weekend of 2010, he was "parachuted in" by the party's leadership, reputedly for the Blairite faction, as parliamentary candidate to fight the coming election for Labour in a "safe seat" in the industrial midlands, a political coup worthy of Engels himself. Hunt writes con brio and with evident empathy for his subject. He is quick to underline the evils of unregulated early capitalism and to sympathize with the indignation underlying socialist and communist ideals. But he also displays a sharp eye for the vanity and self-deception of many revolutionaries—and for the appalling price they are so often prepared for others to pay. Hunt sees Engels and his kind as principled critics of a vile system while at the same time making them the target of witty barbs (often, like the "frock-coated communist," underlining their privileged social position) and of sophisticated irony that depends on the cosmopolitan wisdom of hindsight and exhibits the moral luxury of tut-tutting about capitalism without having to construct an alternative. Depending on your point of view the author is either having his cake and eating it, or presenting an admirably balanced account.

Bernice Martin is emeritus reader in sociology at the University of London.

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