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The Frock-Coated Communist, the revolutionary life of Friedrich Engels
By Tristram Hunt
Reviewed by Hannah Sell
FRIEDRICH ENGELS wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England when he was just 24 years old. Tristram Hunt says:
"The power, incisiveness and prescience of Engels' polemic remains undiminished. And, 150 years on, it speaks to our age with painful prescience - not only in its critique of the free market and the structural inequalities of British society, but in its unrivalled depiction of the inhumanity of capitalism."
Hunt's new biography of Engels will bring this inspiring figure to a new generation. It gives the reader a very readable picture of Engels, an immensely likeable figure who, in collaboration with Karl Marx, dedicated his life to developing the ideas of 'scientific socialism,' now known as Marxism.
Marx and Engels drew the correct conclusion that it is the economic base of society - the productive forces - that ultimately determines the political superstructure. They dedicated themselves to study capitalism - working out how it exploits workers and crucially, the role of the working class, "the grave-diggers of capitalism", in bringing this blind, crisis-ridden, exploitative system to an end.
Neither Marx nor Engels developed their ideas in isolation from the real struggles of the day. They were constantly in 'the thick of it' - whether in developing the first international, and in Engels' case the second international, in organising support for the heroic 1871 Paris Commune, or, following its defeat, helping to organise support and financial assistance for the thousands of exiled Communards who fled to London.
As young men, they both played important roles in the 1848 revolution that swept Europe. Engels was directly involved in the fighting, and commanded troops. Marx and Engels' most important legacy, however, was the philosophical ideas of 'Marxism'. While this widely publicised book will give a wide readership a taste of Marxism, it gives only a passing, and sometimes inaccurate, understanding of the ideas over which Engels spent so much time sweating.
Good biography can illuminate both the lives of individuals and the historical context of their lives. Hunt writes well. He is particularly vivid dealing with the 20 years when Engels was trapped 'huckstering' - working as a manager in his father's Manchester mill - to provide financial assistance both for Marx and many revolutionary causes.
Nonetheless, last year's impressive biography, Engels: A Revolutionary Life by John Green, released by a small publishing company (and reviewed in The Socialist 536), while not correct on every point, gives a clearer picture of what Engels believed in. Best of all, of course, read Engels' writings.
As Hunt correctly explains, these are as much part of Marxism as Marx's own writings, but also helped to 'codify' and 'popularise' Marxism without vulgarising it.
Hunt rightly defends Engels against the idea that his works on dialectics distorted Marxism. Dialectics - first developed by the ancient Greeks - is a method of seeing phenomena in an all-sided way, and not as static but as constantly changing.
As young men Marx and Engels were followers of Hegel, a dialectician but an idealist. As Marx put it, they 'put Hegel the right way up' when they put his ideas on a materialist basis.
Engels codified these ideas in Anti-Duhring but he worked together with Marx. Hunt explains: "[Marx] was the prime mover behind Anti-Duhring, he had the entire manuscript read to him, contributed a small section on economics and in 1878 recommended the book 'very important for a true appreciation of German Socialism'."
Hunt rightly sees the ideas of Marx and Engels as an indivisible whole but he wrongly writes off the role of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in developing Marxism, calling Lenin "power hungry" and accusing him of turning Marxism into an "irreproachable dogma".
In reality he is impugning Lenin who, like Marx and Engels, saw Marxism as a flexible method - the antithesis of a dogma - with the later horrendous crimes of the Stalinists. Leon Trotsky, who fought against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, is given only one passing reference.
Hunt also mistakenly suggests that towards the end of his life Engels had a completely different approach to Lenin on the question of the state. Hunt repeats Engels' oft-misinterpreted remark that "the era of barricades and street-fighting is gone for good".
In fact Engels was only making tactical points on the tasks of the working class in that particular period, and even this was qualified, as he still stated that "barricades" would sometimes be needed.
Hunt sees Engels as a man of contradictions. In particular he points to a contradiction between him working as a manager in his father's mill and dedicating his life to the overthrow of capitalism and between his "significant contribution to Marxist theory" on the family and women's oppression and young Engels "the great Lothario".
On neither issue is this valid. Engels, as Hunt describes, hated working in his father's mill and the double life it entailed. Having broken with his family he did not go back and "bend the knee" to his family because he wanted a foot in both camps, but purely in order to finance the revolutionary movement. Hunt makes it clear that the day he could give up the factory in order to dedicate himself full-time to the struggle for socialism was one of the happiest of his life.
On his approach to personal relations Hunt partially answers his own point when he says, "when it came to his personal affairs he refused to submit to bourgeois norms". Engels defied these norms. The two serious relationships of his life were with working class women, with whom he lived in defiance of his family.
It is misleading of Hunt to partially obscure Engels' exceptionally liberated behaviour towards women for the time, by the assertion that in his youth, Engels frequented Parisian brothels. Hunt gives no evidence for this beyond Engels' use of the term 'grisettes' which, as John Green has pointed out, is a broad term often used in that period for independent or bohemian women who were not involved in prostitution.
The book is weak on the development of the parties of the second international, particularly regarding the struggle for the formation of an independent party of the working class in Britain.
Again, Hunt overstates the role of personalities. Engels is portrayed, for personal reasons, as being out of touch with the British workers' movement. This is untrue. Despite avidly following the movement's development in continental Europe - particularly the SPD in Germany - Engels also found time to encourage every step, however tentative, towards the development of an independent workers' party in Britain.
Hunt emphasizes Engels' undoubted political criticisms of Keir Hardie, the leader of the Independent Labour Party. However, this is to misunderstand Engels' approach. When the first three workers' candidates, including Hardie, were elected to parliament in 1892 Engels declared: "the new working class movement enters parliament triumphantly".
Move as a class
Engels' approach, as he explained in relation to the US, was that "the great thing is to get the working class to move 'as a class'". He believed that once workers found their own political voice, they would "soon find the right direction".
He consistently pointed out the mistakes in the programme and approach of the new workers' parties and potential new parties, but he recognised that an independent party, whatever its limits, was a step forward.
That is why he argued in the US that "anything which would delay or prevent the national consolidation of the working men's party [sic] - on no matter what platform", would be "a great mistake".
As a New Labour supporter, Hunt does not draw out the parallels with today on the question of a political voice for the working class. The transformation of the Labour Party, which in the past was a workers' party at its base, into 'New Labour', a completely capitalist party, has left the working class in Britain disenfranchised.
The task that faces Marxists today in patiently encouraging every step towards a new mass workers' party is very similar to that which confronted Engels in his later years.
Engels played a crucial role in developing the theoretical foundations on which socialists base ourselves today. He dedicated his life to the struggle for socialism - financially supporting Marx, contributing much to what is now called Marxism, and playing a leading role in the struggles of his day. Despite its considerable limitations, this book will encourage a new generation to discover what he stood for.
The Frock Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt (hardback). £25.00
A Revolutionary Life: Engels by John Green. £10.00
Books/ pamphlets by Engels:
Conditions of the Working Class in England. £9.99
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. £13.00
Socialism Utopian and Scientific, with George Novack introduction. £7.00
On the Trade Unions - with Marx: Edited, introduction and notes by Kenneth Lapides. £8.95
Communist Manifesto - with Marx. Introduction by Leon Trotsky. £3.50
Communist Manifesto - with Marx. £1.00
On "Capital" synopsis, reviews and supplementary material. £4.95
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In The Socialist 5 June 2009:
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party review
Marxist analysis: history