Finding Engels?

November 18, 2009

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
By Tristram Hunt
Penguin, 2009
443 pages, $59.95 (hb)

In this entertaining and well-written biography, Tristram Hunt sets himself the task of finding out the truth about Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx's life-long collaborator and friend.

Such a search is necessary, since, as Hunt explains using words from E.P. Thompson, Engels has for some time been treated as a kind of "whipping boy" who gets the blame for "any sin one chooses to impugn to subsequent Marxisms".

For example, the fact that Lenin and Stalin and other prominent figures in the Bolshevik Party relied on the later works of Engels for their interpretation of Marx has resulted in Engels being blamed for the eventual ossification of Marxist theory under 20th Century "actually existing socialism".

Indeed, some commentators — for example, Norman Levine — appear to come close to blaming Engels for the gulags, purges and manifold horrors of Stalinism.

In the course of countering the prevailing view, Hunt provides a detailed and often illuminating account of Engels' life, work and milieu. Starting with his upbringing in the stuffy and cloistered Protestantism of Barmen, Gemany, Hunt takes us through Engels' journey as a young man from romanticism to socialism, the sojourns in Manchester during which he gathered material for his The Condition of the Working Class in England, the 1848 revolutions and the collaboration with Marx on The Communist Manifesto.

He does an especially good job of describing the "self-loathing existence as a Manchester millocrat" Engels endured for the best part of two decades to finance Marx's family while he was writing Capital. He also writes of the gargantuan labour Engels put into editing the second and third volumes of Capital after Marx's death.

At the same time as describing the work, though, Hunt paints a vivid picture of a larger-than-life character who enjoyed nothing better than good food, drink and company. Engels comes across as he must have done to the Marx children, as a generous, loyal and convivial uncle, and a man it would be a pleasure to share a few bottles of his beloved pilsner beer with.

Hunt exonerates Engels (and Marx) from the accusation that their theories laid the groundwork for Stalin's gulags or Pol Pot's killing fields. They are no more to blame for them than Martin Luther is for modern-day Protestant evangelicalism or the Prophet Muhammad for the attack on the twin towers.

Nor does the "attractively non-doctrinaire thinking" of Engels bear any responsibility for the hollowing-out of what passed for Marxist theorising in Stalin's Soviet Union.

Indeed, Hunt ends with a ringing declamation of Engels' contemporary relevance: "As our post-1989 liberal Utopia of free trade and Western democracy totters under the strain of both religious orthodoxy and free-market fundamentalism, his critique speaks down the ages: the cosy collusion of government and capital; the corporate flight for cheap labour and low skills; the restructuring of family life around the proclivities of the market; the inevitable retreat of tradition in the face of modernity, and the vital interstices of colonialism and capitalism; the military as a component of the industrial complex; and even the design of our cities as dictated by the demands of capital."

More than anything else, the current crisis in the global capitalist financial and banking sector bears testament to the enduring importance of Engels and Marx.

I could stop there and simply commend Hunt's biography as a good piece of work. But despite its positive qualities, it is marred by a number of unattractive features, and it's a reviewer's job to bring these to the attention of potential readers. I'll pick out four.

First, despite his obvious sympathy for Engels, Hunt still succumbs to the temptation to paint his behaviour at certain points in unjustifiably negative terms.

For example, in October 1848, as reaction to the revolutions spread across Europe, Engels was expelled from Brussels by the Belgian authorities and deported to Paris.

Hunt writes: "And what did Friedrich Engels do to help see in the promised proletarian dawn? Did he return to the struggle? Propagandise in Paris? Support a workers' defence fund? No, he got away from it all on a walking holiday."

This is very unfair to Engels. The truth of the matter is that the Prussian authorities had just issued an arrest warrant for Engels, based on a charge of high treason.

The Belgians, while unable to extradite him to Germany because of their 1830 constitution, nonetheless wanted him off their territory and so dumped him on the French side of their border.

Unable to return to Germany, and finding Paris at that time "a dead city", Engels decided that Switzerland was the only place that would offer him a temporary safe haven, and having no money, set out to get there on foot.

Sure, he enjoyed himself on the two-week journey and left us some evocative descriptions of the people he met and the wine he drank on the way, but that hardly merits Hunt's crude sarcasm.

This sarcasm and lack of charity comes up at various points in the book. Marx, for example, is said to be infuriated by "proletarian authenticity". Capital is implied to be tainted by the fact that it was written while Marx subsisted on funds secured from the exploitation of labour in the Manchester factory managed by Engels. These are just silly comments that spoil the good work Hunt does elsewhere.

Second, Hunt quite remarkably says Engels advocated a parliamentary road to socialism: "In 1891 … Engels thought democratic socialist parties could now move straight to power, via the ballot box, without having to endure the intermission of radical-bourgeois rule which had seemed necessary in the reactionary, feudal days of 1848."

This is a travesty of Engels' thinking, and simply equivocates on having a parliamentary majority (which can indeed be attained via participation in bourgeois democratic elections) and the establishment of socialism (which according to Engels requires the destruction — not the occupation — of the bourgeois state machinery).

Hunt thus pushes on Engels the very distortion exposed to brilliant effect by Lenin in The State and Revolution.

It also neglects Engels' rich seam of work on the formation of the "labour aristocracy" and the limits of parliamentarism, the value of which was confirmed by the capitulation of the Second International in August 1914 (see e.g. J. Strauss, "Engels and the Theory of the Labour Aristocracy", Links, Number 25 [January 2004]).

Third, Hunt comes across as lacking a basic political education at various points.

He accepts the description of Lenin as a "power-hungry monster". Although there are plenty of negative comments about 20th century and contemporary socialism, one would think from reading Hunt that they failed entirely to achieve anything positive.

Hunt speaks of the "brazen inhumanity of Marxism-Leninism". This may be apt as a description of Stalin's regime, but does it apply to contemporary Cuba?

Fourth, Hunt commits an act of blatant discourtesy when he says, "the last truly popular English-language life of Engels [was] Gustav Meyer's seminal work of 1934". In fact, an excellent and highly accessible biography of Engels was published in 2008, the before Hunt's own volume (John Green, Engels: A Revolutionary Life).

Although there is much to commend in Hunt's book, faced with a choice between the two, I would recommend the book by Green. At any rate, it is hard to believe Hunt is unaware of Green's book, and he does himself and his readers a disservice by pretending not to know of it.

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