Tuesday, February 02, 2010

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


Fredrick Engels spent much of his life in the shadow of Karl Marx. In itself, this shouldn't be too surprising - Marx's genius eclipsed most of his contemporary thinkers, his prodigious output was enough to drown out other socialists of the time, and his personality was one that made it hard to stand out against him.

In addition, Fredrick Engels, son and heir of one of Germany's growing cotton industrialists was happy to pay second fiddle. He did this to allow Marx the opportunity to develop and write the most important social theories of Marxism, knowing that it was his own labour helping to run the cotton industry that enabled Marx to fund his work.

However Engels was a great thinker, activist and writer as well, and Tristram Hunt's new biography brings out this great life which has been kept too long in the shadows. Hunt starts by examining what would make a young son of the bourgeoisie move to radical politics, placing it very much in the context of a Germany breaking free of the old feudal order and the constraints of church and state, moving towards a new industrial capitalist order. The ideas of Hegel and other radical atheists challenging the old ideas that helped to hold back the development of the new.

From such ideas, it was an easy step, as it was for Marx, to start to challenge the growing belief that emergent capitalism would bring peace and prosperity. Engels was someone who judged ideas on experience and what he saw in the industrial heartlands of Manchester clearly brought him closer to a belief in a socialistic future. His horror at factory conditions was not the false sympathy of the rich charity donor, but a seething anger at a system that wrecked lives in the name of profit.

Hunt follows the growing friendship and collaboration between the two revolutionaries. It wasn't simply money that Engels sent to help Marx. But his proofing skills and his ideas. Engels finished articles and books that Marx had abandoned. Prodded and poked the other into work and became a close family friend.

But what shines through for me is that Engels was a man who loved life. Fine wines and walks in the country, travel and the excitement of revolution. For Engels the world could produce plenty and he clearly believed that the bounty that capitalism had produced should be something to be enjoyed by everyone, not a select few. He wasn't someone to abstain from his own enjoyment. He loved to party. But he also knew that he was in a privileged position, one that could only be extended to others if capitalism was overthrown.

The later chapters of the book deal with Engels' life after the death of Marx. Here Engels comes into his own. Free of the shackles of helping to run the mills, he is able to write and get involved in politics in a way he wasn't able to before. It's now that some of his greatest writings get published - works on sexuality and the family, the origins of humans and his writings on science.

For the developing socialist movement on the continent, Engels was a living link to the past, and to Karl Marx. But if later governments and parties acted in the way that they did because they believed that Engels gave them a blueprint that matched their own beliefs, Hunt shows us just why they were wrong. Until his last days, Engels argued that Marxism was not a dogma, but a guide to action. Engels was always keen to avoid placing himself above Marx, but never shy of his own arguments. The use by Stalin and others to put Engels on a pedestal to justify their actions, deliberately misunderstands that Marxism is a way of looking at the world, not a hard and fast explanation of how society must work.

For any Marxist or revolutionary socialist reading this book, there are inevitably quibbles. I found some of Hunt's descriptions of Marx and Engels actions a little unbelievable. At one point for instance, he implies a cynicism towards the defeat of the Paris Commune, based on the Communards failure to create political organisation along their preferred lines. But such criticisms by the revolutionaries are done in the interests of the movement, and they certainly didn't celebrate the Communes defeat. In fact, as Hunt shows they sheltered and aided those fleeing the counter-revolutionary brutality of the French regime.

This however is perhaps more of a criticism of style or at least a misunderstanding of the importance of the Commune. While Hunt has an excellent understanding of how Marx and Engels' understanding of the problems of capitalism help explain events in the modern era, he isn't writing to arm us for the destruction of capitalism today.

Nevertheless, this is a fantastic introduction to the life of one of the world's greatest revolutionaries, and to the politics upon which the modern socialist movement is based. It should be a springboard to reading further works of both Engels and Marx, but will help many put their ideas into the context of the times.

Related Reviews

Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England

1 comment:

Tom said...

On another note, Tristam Hunt is now MP for stoke central