Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

by Tristram Hunt


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805092486
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

One of Britain's leading young historians, Tristram Hunt is a lecturer in history at the University of London. The author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, he writes political and cultural commentary for The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications.

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On 30 June 1869, Friedrich Engels, a Manchester mill owner, gave up his job in the family business after nearly twenty years. Ready to greet him on his return to his small cottage in the Chorlton suburbs were his lover Lizzy Burns and houseguest Eleanor Marx, daughter of his old friend Karl. "I was with Engels when he reached the end of his forced labour and I saw what he must have gone through all those years," Eleanor later wrote of Engels's final day at work. "I shall never forget the triumph with which he exclaimed 'for the last time!' as he put on his boots in the morning to go to his office. A few hours later we were standing at the gate waiting for him. We saw him coming over the little field opposite the house where he lived. He was swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming. Then we set the table for a celebration and drank champagne and were happy."1

Friedrich Engels was a textile magnate and foxhunter, a member of the Manchester Royal Exchange, and president of the city's Schiller Institute. He was a raffish, high-living, heavy-drinking devotee of the good things in life: lobster salad, Château Margaux, Pilsener beer, and expensive women. But Engels also for forty years funded Karl Marx, looked after his children, soothed his furies, and provided one half of history's most celebrated ideological partnership as coauthor of The Communist Manifesto and cofounder of what would come to be known as Marxism. Over the course of the twentieth century, from Chairman Mao's China to the Stasi state of the GDR, from the anti-imperial struggle in Africa to the Soviet Union itself, various manifestations of this compelling philosophy would cast their shadow over a full third of the human race. And as often as not, the leaders of the socialist world would look first to Engels rather than Marx to explain their policies, justify their excesses, and shore up their regimes. Interpreted and misinterpreted, quoted and misquoted, Friedrich Engels—the frock-coated Victorian cotton lord—became one of the central architects of global communism.

Today, a journey to Engels begins at Moscow's Paveletsky rail station. From this shabbily romantic tsarist-era terminal, the rusting sleeper train heaves off at midnight for the Volga plains hundreds of miles southeast of the capital. A grinding, stop-start fourteen-hour journey, alleviated only by a gurgling samovar in the guard's carriage, eventually lands you in the city of Saratov with its wide, tree-lined streets and attractive air of lost grandeur.

Bolted onto this prosperous provincial center is a crumbling six-lane highway that bridges the mighty Volga and connects Saratov to its unloved sister city, Engels. Lacking any of Saratov's sophistication, Engels is a seedy, forgotten site dominated by railway loading docks and the rusting detritus of light industry. At its civic center squats Engels Square, a bleak parade ground encircled by housing projects, a shabby strip mall dotted with sports bars, casinos, and DVD stores, and a roundabout clogged with Ladas, Sputniks, and the odd Ford. Here, in all its enervating grime, is the postcommunist Russia of hypercapitalism and bootleg Americana. And amid this free market dystopia stands a statue of Friedrich Engels himself. Fifteen feet high, atop a marble plinth and with a well-tended municipal flower bed at his feet, he looks resplendent in his trench coat, clutching a curling copy of The Communist Manifesto.

Across the former USSR and Eastern bloc, the statues of Marx (together with those of Lenin, Stalin, and Beria) have come down. Decapitated and mutilated, their remains are gathered together in monument graveyards for the ironic edification of Cold War cultural tourists. Inexplicably, Engels has been given leave to remain, still holding sway over his eponymous town. As a quick conversation with local residents and early-evening promenaders in Engels Square reveals, his presence here is the product neither of affection nor of admiration. Certainly, there is little hostility toward the cofounder of communism but rather a nonchalant indifference and weary apathy. Like the myriad plinths laden with nineteenth-century generals and long-forgotten social reformers that litter the squares of Western European capitals, Engels has become an unknown and unremarkable part of the civic wallpaper.

In his birthplace, in the Rhineland town of Wuppertal (now a commuter suburb for the nearby finance and fashion city of Düsseldorf), a similar disinterest is evident. There is a Friedrich Engels Strasse and a Friedrich Engels Allee but little sense of a town overly eager to commemorate its most celebrated son. The site of Engels's Geburtshaus, destroyed by a Royal Air Force bombing raid in 1943, remains barren and all that marks the place of his arrival into the world is a dirty granite monument modestly noting his role as the "cofounder of scientific socialism." Covered in holly and ivy, it is edged into the shadowy corner of a run-down park, overlooked by aging portable toilets and a vandalized phone booth.

In modern Russia and Germany, let alone in Spain, England, or America, Engels has slipped the bonds of history. Where once his name was on the lips of millions—as Marx's fellow combatant, as the author of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (the bible of global communism), as the theoretician of dialectical materialism, as the name regularly grafted onto city streets and squares by revolutionary insurgents and left-wing councils, as the man whose visionary, bearded features appeared on the currency and in textbooks and, alongside Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, stared down from vast flags and Soviet Realist billboards onto May Day parades—it is now barely registered in either East or West. In 1972, an official GDR biography could claim that "nowadays there is hardly a corner of this earth of ours where Engels's name has not been heard of, where the significance of his work is unknown."2 Today, he is so innocuous his statue isn't even pulled down.

The same cannot be said of his colleague Karl Marx. Two decades on from the fall of the Berlin Wall and Francis Fukuyama's hubristic declaration of "the end of history," Marx's reputation is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. In recent years, he has been transformed from the ogre responsible for the killing fields of Cambodia and labor camps of Siberia to modern capitalism's most perceptive analyst. "Marx's Stock Resurges on a 150-Year Tip" was how the New York Times marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto—a text that, more than any other, "recognized the unstoppable wealth-creating power of capitalism, predicted it would conquer the world, and warned that this inevitable globalization of national economies and cultures would have divisive and painful consequences."3 As Western governments, businesses, and banks faced an economic hurricane of free market fundamentalism at the turn of the twenty-first century—financial meltdowns in Mexico and Asia, the industrialization of China and India, the decimation of the middle class in Russia and Argentina, mass migration, and a worldwide "crisis of capitalism" in 2007-09—the Cassandra-like voice of Marx started to echo down the decades. The post-1989 neoliberal capitalist consensus, Fukuyama's endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution all set to be built on the historical wreck of communism, seemed to falter. And there was Marx waiting in the wings. "He's back," screamed the Times in the autumn of 2008 as stock markets plunged, banks were nationalized, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was photographed leafing through Das Kapital (sales of which surged to the top of the German best-seller lists). Even Pope Benedict XVI was moved to praise Marx's "great analytical skill."4 The British economist Meghnad Desai, in a work that formed part of an increasingly effusive literature on Marx, had already labeled the phenomenon "Marx's revenge."5

For it was now a truth universally acknowledged that Marx was the first to chart the uncompromising, unrelenting, compulsively destructive nature of capitalism. "It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors,' and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interests, than callous 'cash-payment,' " as The Communist Manifesto puts it. "It has drowned the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation."6 It was Marx who revealed how capitalism would crush languages, cultures, traditions, even nations in its wake. "In one word, it creates a world after its own image," he wrote long before globalization became a byword for Americanization. In his best-selling 2005 biography, Karl Marx, ou l'esprit du monde, the French politician-cum-banker Jacques Attali located Marx as the first great theorist of globalization. Even the Economist, the great weekly promulgator of neoliberal dogma, had to give him credit for "envisioning the awesome productive power of capitalism." As the magazine conceded in a 2002 article entitled "Marx after Communism," "he saw that capitalism would spur innovation to a hitherto-unimagined degree. He was right that giant corporations would come to dominate the world's industries."7 At the same time, Attali's book, together with Francis Wheen's popular biography of Marx (Karl Marx, 1999), helped cast the man in a sympathetic light as a struggling journalist, endearing rapscallion, and loving father.8 Since the 1960s and Louis Althusser's "discovery" of the "epistemological break" between the young and mature Marx—between the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts concerned with alienation and morality and the later, materialist Marx—we had already come to know of Karl Marx's early philosophical humanism. Now we were offered the biographical complement of a rounded, engaging, and strikingly contemporary individual.

Where does Friedrich Engels fit within this generous new alignment? In the absence of a similar slew of biographies and perhaps as part of a conscious post-1989 forgetting, Engels has been excised from popular memory.9 Or, more worrisomely, in certain ideological circles he has been landed with responsibility for the terrible excesses of twentieth-century Marxism-Leninism. For as Marx's stock has risen, so Engels's has fallen. Increasingly, the trend has been to separate off an ethical, humanist Karl Marx from a mechanical, scientistic Engels and blame the latter for sanctifying the state crimes of communist Russia, China, and Southeast Asia. Even in the mid-1970s, E. P. Thompson was noting the urge to turn "old Engels into a whipping boy, and to impugn to him any sin that one chooses to impugn to subsequent Marxisms. . . . I cannot accept the pleadings which always find Marx and Lenin innocent and leave Engels alone in the dock."10 Similarly, Richard N. Hunt commented on how "it has lately become fashionable in some quarters to treat Engels as the dustbin of Classical Marxism, a convenient receptacle into which can be swept any unsightly oddments of the system, and who can thus also bear the blame for whatever subsequently went awry."11 Thus, the attractive Marx of the Paris notebooks is compared and contrasted unfavorably with the dour Engels of Anti-Dühring. The Marxist scholar Norman Levine, for instance, has been in no doubt that "Engelism [sic] led directly to the dialectical materialism of the Stalin era. . . . By asserting that a fixed path of development existed in history, by asserting that pre-determined historical development was moving towards socialism, Engelism made Soviet Russia appear as the fulfilment of history. . . . During the Stalin era, what the world understood as Marxism was really Engelism."12 Suddenly, Engels is left holding the bag of twentieth-century ideological extremism while Marx is rebranded as the acceptable, postpolitical seer of global capitalism.

Of course it is true that we largely know about and are interested in Friedrich Engels because of his collaboration with Marx, a partnership in which the devoted Engels was always careful to cast himself as second fiddle. "Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name," he announcfed conclusively after his friend's death.13 It is equally true that much of the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism in the twentieth century sought its validity, however spurious, in elements of Engels's later codification of Marxism. But just as it is now possible, as the post-1989 polemical dust settles and the socialism of Marx and Engels is no longer automatically obscured by the long, Leninist shadow of the Soviet Union, to take a renewed look at Marx, so we can also begin to approach Engels afresh. "Communism defiled and despoiled the radical heritage," Tony Judt has written of the "dictatorial deviation" that marked its perverted implementation during the twentieth century. "If today we face a world in which there is no grand narrative of social progress, no politically plausible project of social justice, it is in large measure because Lenin and his heirs poisoned the well."14 But as that historical tide at last begins to ebb, it is now possible and valuable to return to the lives and works of "the old Londoners." For they 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.

To all of which Engels contributed profoundly. Managing a mid-Victorian Manchester cotton business, dealing daily with the economic chain of world trade, which stretched from the plantations of the American South to the Lancashire mills to the British Raj, it was his experience of the workings of global capitalism that made its way into the pages of Marx's Das Kapital just as it was his experience of factory life, slum living, armed insurrection, and street-by-street politicking that informed the development of communist doctrine. And, again, it was Friedrich Engels who was far more adventurous when it came to exploring the ramifications of his and Marx's thinking in terms of family structure, scientific method, military theory, and colonial liberation. As Marx immersed himself ever deeper in economic theory, Engels ranged freely on questions of politics, the environment, and democracy with unexpectedly modern applicability. If Marx's voice is being heard again today, then it is also time we stripped away Engels's modesty and allowed for his richly iconoclastic ideas to be explored apart from the memory of Marx.

What makes Engels a fascinating source of biographical inquiry is the personal background to this philosophical prowess, the rich contradiction and limitless sacrifice that marked his long life. It was a life, moreover, set against the great revolutionary epoch of the nineteenth century: Engels was with the Chartists in Manchester, on the German barricades in 1848-49, urging on the Paris Communards in 1871, and witness to the uncomfortable birth of the British Labor movement in 1890s London. He was a man who believed in praxis, in living his theory of revolutionary communism as practice. Yet the frustration of his life was that he so rarely got the chance, since from his earliest meetings with Marx he decided to relinquish his own ambitions for the sake of his friend's genius and the greater good of the communist cause. Over twenty long years, in the prime of his life, he endured a self-loathing existence as a Manchester millocrat in order to allow Marx the resources and freedom to complete Das Kapital. The notion of individual sacrifice, so central to communist self-definition, was there at the movement's birth.

Engels's extraordinary deference to Marx often made for a life of painful contradiction. Of course a dynamic of contradiction—the interpenetration of opposites, the negation of the negation—stands at the heart of Marxist theory. Right from his initial conversion to communism, Engels, the well-born scion of Prussian merchants, lived that tension in a transparently personal way. And so this biography is also the memoir of a foxhunting man: a womanizing, champagne-drinking capitalist who helped to found an ideology that was contrary to his class interests and would, over the decades, transform into a dull puritanical faith utterly at odds with the character of its creators. Engels himself would never admit any contradiction between his gentleman's lifestyle and his egalitarian ideals—but his critics did then and certainly do now.

Indeed, introspection was not a vice familiar to Engels. Instead, he regarded his life's work as an uncomplicated act of service to the philosophical ideals and political project of Karl Marx. Whether it was street-level party activism, providing the primary material for Das Kapital, churning out propaganda, pursuing ideological enemies, or extending Marxian thought into unconquered territory, Engels was a model of military discipline. "At every difficulty that we who work in the vineyard of our master, the people, come across, we go to Engels," wrote Eleanor Marx in 1890. "And never do we appeal to him in vain." Always thinking strategically, frequently challenging his superiors, an intellectual as much as a soldier, Engels was "The General." A nickname given to him by Eleanor in light of his military journalism, it instantly caught on as it so obviously embodied a deeper truth about the man—not simply his immaculate personal grooming and straight-backed demeanor but the overarching sense of control, the inspirational leadership, and cool professionalism that typified his role within the Marxian project. No man made a greater contribution to its nineteenth-century successes.

But a general is only as good as his army, and many Marxist historians would certainly disparage the biography of a single man at the expense of a broader history of the masses. Yet this would be to succumb to a particularly restrictive interpretation of Marxism and neglect the attractively nondoctrinaire thinking of Engels himself. He not only had an abiding interest in biography (especially the lives of British army generals) but was adamant that "men make their own history . . . in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the result of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the world outside that constitutes history." For Engels history was always, in part, a question of individual desires. "The will is determined by passion or deliberation. But the levers which immediately determine passion or deliberation are of very different kinds." They may be external factors or ideologies, personal hatreds or even individual whims. The question was: "What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives in the minds of the actors?"15 It is the ambition of this biography to unpick those passions and desires, personal hatreds and individual whims—as well as the driving forces and historical causes—of a man who made his own history and who continues to shape ours.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Preface 1

1 Siegfried in Zion 11

2 The Dragon's Seed 45

3 Manchester in Black and White 75

4 ?A Little Patience and Some Terrorism? 113

5 The Infinitely Rich'48 Harvest 148

6 Manchester in Shades of Gray 178

7 An End to Huckstering 211

8 The Grand Lama of the Regent's Park Road 239

9 Marx's Bulldog 274

10 First Fiddle at Last 317

Epilogue 352

Notes 369

Bibliography 401

Acknowledgments 411

Index 413

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Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
brigitte64 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A great book, easy to read if you are interested in history. It helps understand how different the "existing communism" is from the one Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx describe in their books and newspaper articles . A biography of Engels life in the historic background. The conflicts with his family and the mill business where he was born and raised. And the struggle with and about the not really unite labor movement in a time where everything seemed possible in Europe.
willyvan More than 1 year ago
Tristram Hunt, a lecturer in British history at Queen Mary, University of London, has written a fine biography of Engels. He shows how Engels developed by working through Shelley's poetry, Strauss' Life of Jesus, Hegel's Philosophy of History, Feuerbach's critique of Christianity, and Carlyle's two volumes on Cromwell. He shows how Engels was both a patriot and an internationalist. Engels reported capitalism human costs, first in Barmen in Prussia, then in Manchester, in the brilliant Condition of the Working Class in England, where, as Engels, wrote, "I accuse the English bourgeoisie before the entire world of murder, robbery and other crimes on a massive scale." He co-wrote the Communist Manifesto and made a huge contribution to Das Kapital, 'the foundation text of scientific socialism and one of the classics of Western political thought'. His work with Marx was 'Western philosophy's greatest intellectual partnership'. Engels was a great enthusiast for science: "Darwin, by the way, whom I'm reading just now, is absolutely splendid." As a materialist and atheist, he knew that matter existed independently of, and before, any consciousness. Hunt notes, "He always believed in a workers' party led by the working class itself (rather than intellectuals and professional revolutionaries)". He worked in the General Council of the First International and with Britain's trade unions. He opposed colonialism and supported the Indian and Chinese peoples' wars for independence. Hunt writes, "When it came to the raw politics of race, Engels was always on the right side." He exposed the ruling classes' exploitation of the colonies' raw materials, cheap labour and unprotected markets. In 1882 he forecast, "I would consider a European war to be a disaster; this time it would prove frightfully serious and inflame chauvinism everywhere for years to come." Hunt concludes, "He remained that restless, inquisitive, productive and passionate architect of scientific socialism who first emerged in the 1840s. ... His critique speaks down the ages" - 'the insight that the modern state was merely a front for bourgeois class interests', the growth of finance capital, the instability of capitalism, its inevitable crises and its absolute decline.