[Marxism] Review of Engels biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 6 19:55:09 MDT 2009

Volume 56, Number 16 · October 22, 2009
He Kept Marx Going
By Adam Kirsch

Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
by Tristram Hunt
Metropolitan, 430 pp., $32.00

The traffic of pilgrims to the grave of Karl Marx, in London's Highgate 
Cemetery, may not be as large as it once was. But at least the grave 
still exists, presided over by the enormous black bust erected by the 
British Communist Party in the 1950s, after so many statues of Marx's 
heirs have been destroyed. "His name will endure through the ages, and 
so also will his work," said Friedrich Engels in a speech at Marx's 
funeral, on March 17, 1883; and even if the second part of that prophecy 
seems doubtful today, the first is surely beyond dispute.

But what about Engels himself? Anyone wishing to visit his resting place 
will find no place to go. When he died, twelve years after Marx, Engels 
ordered that his body be cremated and his ashes thrown into the English 
Channel. It was as if he wanted to make certain that, as Tristram Hunt 
writes at the end of Marx's General, "in death as in life there was 
nothing to detract from the glory of Marx." Such self-effacement was the 
constant theme of Engels's relationship with his best friend, 
collaborator, and alter ego, from the beginning of their partnership, 
when they were in their mid-twenties, until its end a lifetime later. 
"Marx was a genius," Engels declared, "we others were at best talented."

Such self-deprecation does not make Engels sound like a very urgent 
subject for a new biography. The problem is compounded by the fact that, 
for twenty years, Engels's primary contribution to the birth of Marxism 
was to retire from writing and organizing so that he could earn money to 
support Marx and his family. After 1848, when their activities during 
the failed German revolution made them personae non grata on the 
Continent, Marx and Engels moved to England, whose liberalism sheltered 
them even as they attacked it. Marx's story during the next two decades 
is one of great intellectual and human drama. Living in dire poverty in 
a Soho slum, enduring the deaths of children and his own tormenting 
illnesses, he gave painful birth to Capital and asserted doctrinal 
control over the burgeoning Communist movement.
Little Bookroom / Culinary Tuscany

Engels, on the other hand, spent that crucial period working at Ermen 
and Engels, the family cotton-spinning business in Manchester, sending 
part of his income to Marx, and living pretty well on what was left 
over. As Hunt writes, Engels's existence was that of "a leading 
Manchester merchant—a sophisticated, high-bourgeois world of dinners, 
clubs, charitable events, and networking." It was a double life, not 
just ideologically but domestically, too. Engels was officially 
unmarried, and maintained a respectable bachelor apartment for receiving 
guests, but he was actually living with Mary Burns, a working-class 
Irishwoman who was effectively his wife. It was a ticklish situation for 
a man who railed against the sexual exploitation of working women by 
their employers. "The right of the first night was transferred from the 
feudal lords to the bourgeois manufacturers," Engels complained, but his 
arrangement with Mary—and the way that, after her death, he filled her 
place with her sister, Lizzy—itself has a rather feudal feel.

That the basis for Engels's pleasures and Marx's work was, ultimately, 
the exploitation of the proletariat—the very thing the two men dedicated 
their lives to ending—makes Engels's Manchester years appear not just 
undramatic but potentially hypocritical. Engels does not sound very 
indignant, for instance, when writing to Marx about a day he spent with 
the Cheshire Hunt: "On Saturday I went out fox-hunting—seven hours in 
the saddle... At least twenty of the chaps fell off or came down, two 
horses were done for, one fox killed (I was in AT THE DEATH)." Engels's 
pleasure in this aristocratic pastime is not fully explained by the fact 
that it was supposedly good training for the cavalry maneuvers he would 
be called upon to lead, come the revolution. But he refused to be 
embarrassed by his inconsistencies. "Would it ever occur to me to 
apologise for the fact that I myself was once a partner in a firm of 
manufacturers?" Engels wrote after his retirement. "There's a fine 
reception waiting for anyone who tries to throw that in my teeth!"

Engels's doubleness, which offers such a striking contrast to Marx's 
single-mindedness, is why he proves to be a surprisingly fruitful 
subject for Tristram Hunt. The book's original title in the UK was The 
Frock-Coated Communist, and Hunt makes much of the piquancy of the 
juxtaposition: the revolutionary in a respectable frock coat, the 
militant who indulged his taste for wine and women. Engels, Hunt 
suggests, proves that communism is not just a matter of party congresses 
and five-year plans, or even of Marx's boils and pawnshops. "Neither a 
Leveler nor a statist," Hunt writes,

     this great lover of the good life, passionate advocate of 
individuality, and enthusiastic believer in literature, culture, art, 
and music as an open forum could never have acceded to the Soviet 
communism of the twentieth century, all the Stalinist claims of his 
paternity notwithstanding.

As this shows, part of Hunt's case in Marx's General is that Engels 
should not be held "responsible for the ter- rible misdeeds carried out 
under the banner of Marxism-Leninism." And certainly all the crimes of 
twentieth-century communism seem far away from the gemütlich Sunday 
afternoons at Engels's house in London in the 1870s, after he had 
retired from business:

     The house specialty was a springtime bowl of Maitrank, a May wine 
flavored with woodruff. There would be German folk songs round the piano 
or Engels reciting his favorite poem, "The Vicar of Bray," while the 
cream of European socialism—from Karl Kautsky to William Morris to 
Wilhelm Liebknecht to Keir Hardie—all paid court.

Such appealing vignettes, Hunt suggests, can help us rehabilitate 
Marxism from the avenging prophet Marx by casting it in the more amiable 
image of Engels. In the same vein, Hunt quotes Engels's responses to 
"the highly popular mid-Victorian parlor game 'Confessions,'" asked him 
by Marx's daughter Jenny. "Favourite virtue: jollity," "Idea of 
happiness: Chateau Margaux 1848," "Favourite hero: None"—these answers 
of Engels are charmingly liberal. Hunt could have shown this even more 
effectively if he had contrasted them with Marx's own to the same 
questionnaire, which Francis Wheen gives in full in his 1999 biography 
Karl Marx: "Favourite virtue: Simplicity," "Idea of happiness: To 
fight," "Favourite hero: Spartacus."

Yet if there is a gulf separating Marx from Engels, and Engels from 
Marxism-Leninism, there is also a connection, which Marx's General makes 
it possible to trace. For while Engels found more pleasure in life than 
Marx, he was no less committed to revolutionary struggle. It did not 
take Marx or Marxism to turn him into a Communist. And the more likable 
Engels seems as a man, the more terrible his theoretical ruthlessness 
becomes. It was Engels, not Marx, who wrote that "history is about the 
most cruel of all goddesses, and she leads her triumphal car over heaps 
of corpses."

Friedrich Engels was born on November 28, 1820, the first son and 
namesake of a prosperous manufacturer in Barmen, in the Rhineland. The 
Engelses were Pietists, uniting a severe Calvinist discipline with a 
sharp eye for business. Hunt quotes a letter Engels's grandfather wrote 
to his father before he was born, setting out a Max Weberian creed: "We 
have to look to our own advantage even in spiritual matters." In such a 
home, even the most trivial infraction was treated as a soul-endangering 
sin. When Engels's father was scandalized by discovering "a dirty book" 
in the fourteen-year-old's desk, it was not the kind of book we might 
think, but merely "a story about knights in the thirteenth century." 
This was bad enough for Engels senior to write, "May God watch over his 
disposition, I am often fearful for this otherwise excellent boy."

He had reason to be afraid; he was rearing his would-be destroyer. In 
the 1840s, when Engels was openly preaching communism around Barmen, his 
father told a friend: "You can't imagine how much this grieves a father: 
first my father endowed the Protestant parish in Barmen, then I built a 
church and now my son is tearing it down." "That's the story of our 
times," the friend replied. Indeed, Engels's relationship with what he 
called "my fanatical and despotic old man" seems to prefigure those of 
the Kirsanovs in Fathers and Sons or the Verkhovenskys in The Possessed.

The difference is that Engels was too much of a realist—and too devoted 
to his mother—simply to break with his family, which would have meant 
condemning himself to a life of poverty. Rather, his revolutionary 
education took place within the establishment, in tandem with his 
progress in his bourgeois career. In 1837, Engels left the Gymnasium to 
begin working in the family firm. The next year he went to Bremen, where 
he apprenticed as a clerk in a linen-exporting company, while also 
making his first mild experiments with rebellion. At this stage, Hunt 
shows, this mainly took the form of growing a mustache, and writing a 
poem about it: "We are not philistines, so we/Can let our mustachios 
flourish free."

Things became more serious when Engels moved to Berlin, where he 
performed his required year of military service. This was the start of 
his lifelong interest in military matters, which earned him the nickname 
"General," to which Hunt's title alludes. (Marx was "Moor," for his dark 
complexion.) More important, Engels was also attending lectures at the 
University of Berlin, especially those of Friedrich Schelling, Hegel's 
great antagonist. "Ask anybody in Berlin today on what field the battle 
for dominion over German public opinion is being fought," Engels wrote, 
"and if he has any idea of the power of the mind over the world he will 
reply that this battlefield is the University, in particular 
Lecture-hall No. 6, where Schelling is giving his lectures in the 
philosophy of revelation." As Hunt notes, this was no understatement: in 
addition to Engels, the audience included Jacob Burckhardt, Mikhail 
Bakunin, and Søren Kierkegaard.

At the university, Engels made contact with the Young Hegelians and 
cemented his hostility to the established order in Germany. Earnest as 
his politics were, they did not make him humorless: he had a dog named 
Nameless, whom he trained to growl at anyone Engels identified as an 
aristocrat. In fact, when Engels first met Marx, in 1842, Marx disdained 
him as a typically frivolous coffeehouse revolutionary. Marx, who was 
two years older than Engels, had just become editor of the Cologne 
newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, and hoped to transform it into a forum for 
serious discussion of communism. He wanted nothing to do with what he 
called the "rowdiness and blackguardism" of Engels's Berlin circle, and 
when Engels visited the paper's offices, his reception by Marx was 
"distinctly chilly."

But Engels was about to prove that he was a much more serious Communist 
than Marx had thought. From late 1842 until the summer of 1844, Engels 
lived in Manchester, sent there by his father to learn the intricacies 
of the international cotton trade; "Manchester Exchange," he wrote, "is 
the thermometer which records all the fluctuations of industrial and 
commercial activity." But he was also exploring the realities of life 
among the victims of the industrial revolution, to which his intimacy 
with Mary Burns gave him unusual access.

Engels was hardly the only writer to engage in what Hunt calls "favella 
tourism" in Manchester. On the contrary, the city had already become a 
symbol of the power and the misery of the new industrial order, and 
everyone who thought seriously about the condition-of-England question 
had to come to grips with it. Carlyle's Past and Present, Disraeli's 
Sybil, Dickens's Hard Times, and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South 
were among the literary treatments of the subject, and they drew on a 
host of official reports on the poverty, sickness, ignorance, and 
despair afflicting the city's workers.

What set The Condition of the Working Class in England apart from all 
these books was that Engels's was not intended to cajole or shame the 
rich into doing their duty by the poor. Rather, Engels promised while 
writing it, "I shall be presenting the English with a fine bill of 
indictment. I accuse the English bourgeoisie before the entire world of 
murder, robbery and other crimes on a massive scale." And he was certain 
that only a violent revolution could put an end to those crimes. "The 
war of the poor against the rich will be the most bloodthirsty the world 
has ever seen," Engels predicted, and no parliamentary legislation or 
Dickensian sentimentality could avert it. "Even if some of the middle 
classes espouse the cause of the workers—even if the middle classes as a 
whole mended their ways—the catastrophe could not be avoided."

In fact, while most of Engels's book is devoted to the plight of the 
working class, its motive force—the animus that makes it such electric 
reading, even today—is his feelings about his own class, the 
bourgeoisie. For while Engels gathered the material for the book in 
Manchester, he actually wrote it in his family home in Barmen, in late 
1844. That summer, on the way back from England, he had stopped in Paris 
and met Marx again. This time, he recalled, "our complete agreement in 
all theoretical fields became evident," and their great friendship 
began. Now, back in his provincial, pious home, the memory of Manchester 
and the excitement of Paris catalyzed Engels's overwhelming disgust with 
his father and his father's class. As he wrote to Marx in January 1845:

     ...Barmen is too hideous, the waste of time is too hideous, and 
what is particularly hideous is to remain not only a bourgeois but 
actually a factory owner, a bourgeois actively engaged against the 
proletariat. A few days in my old man's factory led me once more to 
realize fully this hideousness which I had begun to overlook.... If I 
did not have to record in my book each day those ghastly stories from 
English society I believe I would have begun to get into a rut, but that 
at least has kept my anger on the boil.

That boiling can be heard in Engels's repeated insistence that the 
bourgeoisie is beyond redemption. "The members of the bourgeoisie are 
imprisoned by the class prejudices and principles which have been 
ruthlessly drummed into them from childhood. Nothing can be done about 
people of this sort," he writes. Indeed, the incorrigibility of the 
bourgeoisie is central to Engels's vision of class conflict. It is not a 
matter of the hard-heartedness of this or that factory owner, or even of 
all the factory owners; the problem is a capitalist system that is 
structurally oppressive. That is why only revolution, not reform, can 
help the proletariat.

It creates an interesting tension in Condition, then, when the reader 
realizes how consistently Engels's evidence for the malfeasance of the 
bourgeoisie is drawn from bourgeois sources. Take this passage, on 
homelessness and prostitution in London's parks:

     But let all men, whether of theory or of practice, remember 
this—that within the most courtly precincts of the richest city on GOD'S 
earth, there may be found, night after night, winter after winter, 
women—young in years—old in sin and suffering—outcasts from 
society—ROTTING FROM FAMINE, FILTH AND DISEASE. Let them remember this, 
and learn not to theorize but to act.

The opposition of theory and practice sounds Marxist; but in fact this 
call to arms is quoted from an editorial in The Times. Likewise, many of 
Engels's lurid details and damning statistics come from official reports 
like Edwin Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring 
Population of Great Britain, which was commissioned by a Whig government 
and published under a Tory one, in 1842. Indeed, while Engels insists 
that the workers cannot hope for redress from a bourgeois-aristocratic 
Parliament, he can't help but note that "although the middle classes at 
the moment are the main—indeed the only—power in Parliament, 
nevertheless the last session (1844) was in effect a continuous debate 
on working-class conditions."

All this suggests that far from being obdurate, England's ruling classes 
were taking action—slowly and as yet inadequately—to solve the problems 
caused by the industrial revolution. These problems were, it is useful 
to remember, totally unprecedented, not just in English but in human 
history. The sudden eruption of vast polluted slums in the North of 
England baffled both the institutions of government and the prevailing 
theories of economics and society. Engels was writing at perhaps the 
worst period in Manchester's history, before the introduction of free 
trade, the expansion of the franchise, unionization, and regulation of 
factory work and child labor helped to improve the lives of the workers. 
Yet he insisted that what he witnessed in Manchester were "working class 
conditions in their 'classical' form," and that things could not get 
better without getting worse.

The Condition of the Working Classin England was the first expression of 
Engels's lifelong belief that revolution was just around the corner. The 
cycle of boom and bust, he wrote in the book's conclusion, meant that

     the next [economic] crisis should (on the analogy of previous 
crises) occur in 1852 or 1853.... But before that crisis arrives the 
English workers will surely have reached the limits of their 
endurance.... Popular fury will reach an intensity far greater than that 
which animated the French workers in 1793.

The year 1853 came and went, and Engels postponed the reckoning: "This 
time there'll be a day of wrath such as has never been seen before...all 
the propertied classes in the soup, complete ruin of the bourgeoisie.... 
I, too, believe that it will all come to pass in 1857," he wrote to 
Marx. In 1865, when the American Civil War had cut off cotton exports to 
England and devastated Manchester, Engels was sanguine again: "I imagine 
by next month the working people themselves will have had enough of 
sitting about with a look of passive misery on their faces."

It is impossible, reading such prophecies, not to be reminded of the 
disappointed members of some chiliastic cult, constantly recalculating 
the date of the apocalypse. And here lies the most significant aspect of 
Engels's story. There was only one Marx; but there have been many 
millions of Marxists, and Engels was the first of these. His dilemma was 
the same one faced by generations of committed revolutionaries since: 
How should one live in a dying world that is on the verge of transformation?

For Engels, this was an even more difficult problem than it was for, 
say, the Seventh-Day Adventists (whose prophet, William Miller, 
initially predicted that 1843 would be the end of days). For, like Marx, 
Engels inherited from Hegel the paradox that history at once requires 
and negates the freedom of individual men. In the influential 1878 
polemic known as Anti-Dühring, in which Engels offered an accessible 
restatement of Marxist principles (and, less happily, tried to use the 
theory of dialectical materialism to explain nature and mathematics), he 
attempted to heal this paradox by redefining freedom: "Freedom does not 
consist in the dream of independence of natural laws, but in the 
knowledge of those laws and in the possibility thus afforded of making 
them work systematically towards definite ends." But this only sharpens 
the dilemma, for what could be more absurd than "working systematically" 
to implement a natural law, like gravity?

The implications of this question for Engels's work on behalf of Marx 
and Marxism were, of course, profound. Engels had nothing but contempt 
for the idea that socialism could be the gift of an inspired prophet, as 
the followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon seemed to believe. He was 
careful to praise Marx not as a lawgiver, but as the discoverer of laws 
that had always been in operation. "Just as Darwin discovered the law of 
development of organic nature," he said in his eulogy, "so Marx 
discovered the law of development of human history." Yet the analogy is 
crucially flawed, for while The Origin of Species did nothing to 
accelerate or divert the course of evolution, TheCommunist Manifesto was 
an intervention into the very class conflict it diagnosed. As Engels 
went on to say:

     Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life 
was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist 
society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, 
to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat.

It was only because Marx was uniquely capable of advancing that cause 
that Engels willingly devoted his life to him.

To Hunt, as to most writers on the subject, Engels's decision to spend 
the prime of his life doing work he disliked in order to support Marx's 
labors inspires admiration and pity. "In truth, the middle decades of 
Engels's life were a wretched time...an era of nervous, sapping 
sacrifice," Hunt writes. Edmund Wilson said the same thing in To the 
Finland Station, likening Marx and Engels to the positive and negative 
poles of a battery: "Marx was to play the part of the metal of the 
positive electrode, which gives out hydrogen and remains unchanged, 
while Engels was to be the negative electrode, which gradually gets used 

Reading Marx's General, however, makes one wonder whether Engels really 
was stuck at the negative pole of the partnership. For surely it was 
Marx who piled up the "misery" and "agony of toil," at his desk in 
London, and Engels who enjoyed the "accumulation of wealth." The 
difference between them was brought out most starkly in the autumn of 
1848, the year of revolutions, when Marx and Engels thought they might 
actually be seeing their dreams come true. Marx had started a new 
radical newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, in Cologne, with Engels 
and other comrades. After Engels gave a fiery speech to an open-air 
workers' meeting, he was threatened with arrest and forced to flee the 
city, while Marx stayed behind, agitating for democratic revolution even 
as the reaction gathered force.

But instead of going to Paris, or Venice, or one of the other 
battlefields of the continent, Engels set out on a long walking tour of 
the French countryside. He drank wine ("What a diversity, from Bordeaux 
to Burgundy,...from Petit Macon or Chablis to Chambertin"), slept with 
country girls, and admired the trees. When he got to Auxerre, he joked 
that the town looked like a "red republic with all its horrors," when in 
fact it was simply streaming with the juice of the wine harvest. This 
sudden holiday, in the middle of the revolution for which he had been 
waiting his whole life, led Wilson to remark on the "Jekyll-and-Hyde 
personality" that Engels displayed: ferocious and acerbic with Marx, 
amiable and pleasure-loving when on his own.

This was, perhaps, Engels's solution to the problem of waiting out a 
dying world. He would not live in the agony of historical expectation, 
like Marx, but savor the fallen present, deferring the rigors of 
salvation into the ever-receding future, where other people would have 
to endure them. Kierkegaard, Engels's old classmate at the University of 
Berlin, summarized his objection to Hegel by comparing him to a man who, 
having constructed a grand palace, decides to live in a shed next door; 
the palace was the absolute future, the shed the existential present. 
Engels, one might say, did just the reverse. The Communist future would 
be an enormous shed; but till it came, he would enjoy the little palace 
of the present. Appropriately enough, this tension appears even in 
Engels's last will and testament. After making a large bequest to 
Germany's Social Democratic Party, to advance the proletarian 
revolution, he went on to instruct the party leader August Bebel: "Drink 
a bottle of good wine on it. Do this in memory of me."

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