An Engels for the bourgeoisie

Issue: 124

Katherine Connelly

Tristram Hunt, The FrockCoated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Allen Lane, 2009), £25.00

Ten years ago Paul Foot wrote a review of Francis Wheen’s engaging and jovial, if somewhat lightweight, biography of Karl Marx. In the review he commented that while most dead left wingers are patronised and rehabilitated by the establishment, “detestation of Karl Marx…has persisted for over a hundred years”. Not so now. A systemic and global crisis of capitalism is so profound that previously smug free-marketeers are looking desperately for answers in the writings of two 19th century communists who said that capitalism is inherently unstable, that crisis is inevitable. The spectre of Marx, which for so long faced an academic wall of silence, is haunting the press, the universities, financial institutions and booklists. For one reviewer of Hunt’s book “the faddish return to Marx visible in sales of some of his books is mostly just a sign of loss of nerve”—embarrassing evidence of his class failing to keep a stiff upper lip.

Just as governments have turned to state intervention (albeit to bail out the rich) after years of the mantra “there is no alternative” to laissez-faire capitalism, so we face an ideological somersault from establishment figures who are now writing about Marxism.

Tristram Hunt is a product of this contradiction, and perhaps this is why the “contradictions of Hegelian proportions” in the public and private lives of Frederick Engels appeal to him and lie at the heart of his biography. “This was where the eye of the storm and stress really lay,” writes Hunt, “in squaring his two diametrically opposed public and private lives as exploitative cotton lord and revolutionary socialist, as frock-coated member of the upper middle class and ardent disciple of the low life”.

Engels was the gentleman in the club and the communist in the beer hall; the fine living wealthy manufacturer who lived in secret with his love, an Irish factory worker; the adrenaline-fuelled young man hunting foxes and, just a few years before, shooting from the barricades. This provides Hunt with the perfect medium to explore one of his own passions—the socio-geography of the 19th century city. Engels had unique equality of access to the two nations contained within entirely segregated cities. Hunt emphasises the influence of Engels’s lover, Mary Burns, “his underworld Persephone” who was his guide into the realm of the Mancunian working class. This allows Hunt to demonstrate that the pioneering work The Condition of the Working Class in England was not just the product of one brilliant man. Engels’s insight at the age of 24—that the working class was the class with the potential power to transform society—was a product of his real experience:

Friedrich Engels’s two worlds—of the mill owner and Mary Burns—profoundly influenced his journey from philosophy to political economy and, in turn, had a marked effect on the emergent shape of Marxism. Uniquely, Engels was able to fuse his real experience of industrial capitalism and working class Chartist politics with the Young Hegelian tradition.

This skilful exploration of the origins of Engels’s work avoids a “great man” narrative by emphasising his intellectual debts—both to acknowledged political thinkers (Georg Hegel, Thomas Carlyle, etc) and to working class agitators including Mary Burns and the Chartists. This allows us to see what was truly creative and original in the works of Marx and Engels. By the same treatment, Hunt is able to show the immense debt that Marx owed to Engels. It is evident not just in the works that they formally co-authored. Hunt quotes Marx asking Engels the manufacturer about the practical dynamics of capitalism: “Engels’s grafting at Ermen & Engels helped to construct the empirical foundations of Das Kapital.”

Also refreshing is Hunt’s refusal to write hagiography. Engels’s sexist and racist assumptions, and his homophobia, are discussed frankly. In fact this effectively vindicates the Marxist idea that “being creates consciousness”, and also that it is engagement with class struggle that enables people to throw off the “muck of ages”—Hunt acknowledges that Engels rejected most of his racist ideas and revised his earlier contradictory attitudes to women. Indeed he subjected women’s oppression to the same method with which he explored class society and not only railed in fury against it but argued that this oppression emerged in particular historical conditions, concluding that it could also, like class society, be swept away.

All this is valuable, but there are serious flaws in Hunt’s book that impoverish his analysis. While Engels overcame his early prejudices about Irish people, Hunt continues throughout the book to apply the adjective “earthy” to the Burns sisters or, as he sometimes calls them, the “earthy Irish sisters”. More disturbing is his use of the poor journalistic trick of deciding for his readers what the best story is, rather than presenting the more uncertain but human narrative.

He has made extensive use of Yvonne Kapp’s superb biography of Eleanor Marx1 and he references this book when he describes the fate of Frederick Demuth, the illegitimate son of Karl Marx and the family servant Helene Demuth. Frederick was fostered but Engels allowed everyone to assume he was the father. Hunt describes the “impoverished life” Frederick Demuth lived, which, reflecting the author’s own social prejudices, includes “his professional life as a skilled fitter and turner and member of the Associated Society of Engineers”.

Hunt adds that “Freddy [Demuth] and his son Harry used the tradesman’s entrance to visit… Engels, however, was always careful to absent himself on such occasions.” Kapp also tells this story but there is an important difference. She conducted the interview with Harry Demuth and she wrote that he and his father went on a Sunday to have dinner with Eleanor Marx in Engels’s house where Helene Demuth “reigned”. The “tradesman entrance” story has an entirely different genesis (unacknowledged by Hunt), which Kapp explores in a footnote. It originates in a letter by Louise Kautsky, who had a turbulent relationship with the Marx family and who was writing of an event that took place before her arrival in the Engels household. Kapp’s extensive research concludes:

There is but a single occasion when he [Frederick Demuth] can be known for certain to have been there: on 1 July 1894 he was one of 13 signatories to a postcard sent from the Engels’s address to Mrs Liebknecht saying they were all drinking German beer while they awaited the telegram announcing the Reichstag election results.

To reference another author and deliberately distort their meaning is dishonest and lazy history. Furthermore, at times, the cost of the good yarn is a superficial analysis. However, where Hunt is weakest is in conveying the experience of workers’ struggle. This is not merely stylistic; it is ideological. In the vivid, intimate portraits in Kapp’s work lies the same sense of excitement and attention to detail that her subject, Eleanor Marx, infused her life with during her deep involvement with the New Unionism strikes in the East End of London.

Hunt, by contrast, fails to take working class subjects seriously and it produces a poor historical analysis. He dismisses the demise of Chartism as the product of “public inertia, government repression and rain”. The growth of reformism, the European context and the change in the economic climate were all apparently unimportant—or perhaps just less amusing. The 1871 Paris Commune provided Marx and Engels with some of their most concrete ideas about workers’ power and the role of the state. The Commune was, in Marx’s words, “a harbinger” but it remained isolated and the cost was horrific—a counter-revolution slaughtered tens of thousands of ordinary Parisians in just seven days.

Marx and Engels’s writings on the Commune, their contact with the survivors who fled and their celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of the Commune are dismissed by Hunt who writes that the diverse strands of socialism and anarchism in the Commune “proved a relief for Marx and Engels: when it all went wrong, there was someone else to blame”. This is cheap and dishonest. The point of analysis was, for Marx and Engels, not simply to interpret the world but to change it. Their analysis therefore reflected the actual experience of working class struggle. The Paris Commune enabled them to argue for practical aspects of proletarian dictatorship, for example the right to recall elected representatives. To insist, then, that they were interested in preserving an analysis at the expense of working class struggle is to devalue the entire point of their live’s work.

And it is precisely this, removing the element of revolution, that is distinctive in the popular resort to Marx that is taking place now. What Hunt fails to understand is that the contradictions in Engels’s life, which he finds so attractive, were created by the absence of proletarian revolution. Engels knew there was no bourgeois answer to resolve the contradictions of capitalism. He returned to business after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and he hated it. Such contradictions were forced on Engels. They were not an integrated part of his character and certainly were not celebrated by him.

This surely is why Hunt is so bitter about the Russian Revolution and again there is dishonesty in his analysis here. Hunt effectively refutes the charge from both bourgeois critics and Stalinist apologists that Engels was the architect of Stalinist determinism. He writes, “There lies an unconscionable philosophical chasm between Engelism and Stalinism.” This is an analysis developed in this journal specifically in regard to Engels.2 While borrowing from this strand of Marxism, Hunt refuses even to engage with its analysis of October 1917, which he contends represents the distortion of Marxism into “an irreproachable dogma” and was led by “power-hungry” Lenin.

This is a biography for a bourgeoisie in crisis. “It is recent events in the world’s stock markets and banking sector which bring Engels’s criticisms so readily to the fore,” writes Hunt. But as such it is the biography of only half of Engels’s life. Ten years ago Marxism was frozen out of the mainstream. Now they are attempting to rehabilitate Marx and Engels while removing the driving force behind their ideas. It is material circumstances—the crisis of capitalism—that has caused this. It will be working class resistance to the crisis that will bring the practical application of Marxism to serious attention. It is time to listen to the gravediggers.


1: Published in two volumes as Eleanor Marx: Family Life, 1855-83 and Eleanor Marx: The Crowded Years, 1884-98.

2: See for instance, International Socialism 65-a special collection on Engels’s Marxism.