Marx’s Capitalist

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt

Books Communism History Philosophy Politics UK Politics

It was the greatest intellectual partnership. Two personalities fizzing with talent, united in mutual affection and burning with passion for a shared cause. It is idle, the German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht observed, to inquire after who contributed what to the joint enterprise, for Marx and Engels were “one soul – inseparable in all their working and planning”. Underpinning the political and theoretical collaboration was a friendship of epic depth and durability. After Marx’s death, in 1883, the former Chartist Julian Harney sent the grieving Engels a letter of condolence. “Your friendship and devotion, his affection and trust, made the fraternal connection of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels something beyond anything I have known in other men. That there was between you a tie ‘passing the love of women’ is but the truth.”

Like many other male cultural partnerships – Goethe and Eckermann, Johnson and Boswell, Laurel and Hardy – the Marx-Engels consortium worked because one partner was willing to accept (perhaps avow would be a better word) the superiority of the other. “Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented,” Engels declared after his friend’s death. It never occurred to him to be resentful of Marx’s eminence: “To be envious of something like that one must have to be frightfully small-minded.” And Engels practised what he preached: for decades, he put his own intellectual development on hold while he worked to support Marx and his family. Without this system of self-effacement, a long-term friendship with Marx, the alpha beast in the jungle of 19th-century socialism, would quite simply have been unworkable.

Writing a biography of Engels thus poses a challenge: the subject has to be pulled out, as it were, from under Marx’s legacy. He also has to be restored to his 19th-century context, for Engels was a German Romantic and a Victorian businessman and intellectual before he became the prophet of Soviet and Chinese communism. In this splendid, gripping biography, Tristram Hunt triumphantly masters both problems. His witty, humane and sharp-eyed portrait of Engels does justice to the complex chemistry of the relationship with Marx, but also sets the “junior partner” at the centre of his own life and intellectual evolution.

In doing so, Hunt challenges several persistent popular assumptions. Engels was not the hired help who provided empirical backfill for Marx’s theoretical canvasses. He was a highly original theorist in his own right, who made a number of foundational contributions – notably, the application of the Feuerbachian concept of “alienation” to the sphere of political economy – to what would later be understood as “Marxist orthodoxy”. It is not true, more-over, that Engels distorted or rigidified the philosophical substance of Marx’s thought through an over-emphasis on the primacy of the dialectic (a claim to this effect has often been reiterated). As Hunt shows, Engels’s deepening interest in the dialectical method from around 1870 was fully endorsed and authorised by Marx. Marx and Engels diverged, moreover, over important issues such as Russian populism, which Marx found attractive for a time, but Engels strenuously rejected.

Above all, Hunt captures with a combination of sweeping panoramas and brilliantly painted miniatures the world in which Engels’s mind and thinking developed. Evangelical Protestantism, German Romanticism, Straussian Bible criticism, Hegelianism, Feuerbach and the inchoate cultural radicalism of Young Germany – Hunt shows how the young Engels acquired a sense of who he was through his passionate engagement with a succession of cultural moments: “I cannot sleep at night, because of all the ideas of the century,” he wrote in 1839.

It was a very English life. Engels arrived in Manchester in 1842, when he was only 22, and spent most of the rest of his life in England. The Marx-Engels letters, though primarily in German, were peppered with English phrases, including recherché colloquialisms. Hunt deftly sketches in the Manchester and London worlds in which Engels moved, doing justice to the diversity of Victorian social-critical discourses and their influence on the young revolutionary ideologue. Engels’s debt to Thomas Carlyle in particular is cast into fascinating relief. As Hunt shows, there are metaphors in The Condition of the English Working Class, Engels’s trenchant, Manchester-based study of proletarian misery, that stem directly from Carlyle’s Signs of the Times.

Hunt is a subtle enough biographer to let Engels flourish in his contradictions – not least of which was that he earned his (and Marx’s) keep for more than 20 years as an agent of that industrial capitalism whose ruthless logic he dedicated his life to exposing. The scale of Marx’s economic dependence on Engels was truly astonishing. “Can you manage with £350 [almost £35,000 in today’s money] for your usual regular needs for a year?” Engels inquired of his friend in 1869 when he was trying to extricate himself from his Manchester business commitments. In addition to the “usual regular needs”, there were endless petitions for cash, as the profligate Marxes moved on to ever more spacious and expensive lodgings, pursued by bailiffs and angry tradesmen. As if that were not enough, Engels also bankrolled a motley band of hangers-on, including Marx’s wastrel son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, a no-hoper who achieved a modest notoriety as the author of the idler tract, The Right to be Lazy.

Engels’s friendship with Mary Burns, the semi-literate Manchester Irish woman who was his companion and lover for 20 years until her death in 1863, is beautifully handled, as is his subsequent cohabitation with Mary’s entirely illiterate younger sister, Lizzy. But the relationship with Marx rightly occupies centre stage. This was a true marriage of opposites. Engels was tall, thin, had beautiful smooth skin and was attractive to women. Marx was squat and covered in carbuncles. Whereas Engels was sweet-natured, equable and of sunny disposition, Marx was impetuous, self-absorbed and tortured. Yet the two had no difficulty in joining forces, especially when an opponent or competitor hove into sight. The “tedious bludgeoning”, as Hunt calls it, of ideological foes was one of the things that kept them afloat as a team.

In what sense should we hold Engels responsible for the crimes and oppression of the totalitarian regimes erected in his name? Hunt is quite unequivocal on this point. Engels was no “Leninist”. He was sceptical of Russia’s chances of mounting a successful revolution and he never espoused the idea of a “vanguard party”. He preferred to set his hopes on the gradually deepening contradictions within western capitalism – in this sense he has much more in common with the Mensheviks than with the authors of the October Revolution. He was not a dogmatist, but a man who was forever changing his mind and looking for new answers. The stony-browed, authoritarian Engels of Soviet statuary now seems as bygone as ancient Egypt. By contrast, the genial, interesting and learned Victorian who inhabits Hunt’s pages is a thoughtful contemporary who speaks eloquently of our current predicaments. That is just one of the paradoxical pleasures of this delightful book.