In praise of Engels

A new biography shows that he loved wine, women and song, and was never afraid to leap headfirst into the intellectual battles of his day.

This article is republished from the May 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

My old comrade, the late Dave Hallsworth, always referred to Friedrich Engels as ‘Fred’. This familiarity reflected the affection and respect in which Marx’s great collaborator was held among British revolutionaries, and a certain pride in his long association with the Manchester proletariat of which Dave was an active protagonist.

As Tristram Hunt observes in his new biography, Engels’ writings – from his impassioned critique of industrial capitalism in Manchester in the 1840s (The Condition of the Working Class in England) to his polemical introduction to Marxism in the 1880s (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) – were more accessible than Marx’s theoretical writings and had a major impact on the labour movement in the twentieth century.

Engels’ wider interests – in the natural sciences (including geology, biology, chemistry and mathematics) and in controversies in evolutionary theory, anthropology and psychology – were shared by the autodidact tradition that he first encountered among the Manchester workers (another tradition that Dave honoured). Another factor in Engels’ enduring popularity that emerges from Hunt’s study is his personal warmth and humanity. While Marx appears (yet again) as a self-centred, hypochondriacal snob, Engels seems to have been equally at home with the illiterate Irish Burns sisters who became his lovers, with the Cheshire hunt, in which he participated with gusto, and with the trade unionists and socialists who flocked from all over Europe to his north London salon in the 1880s and 1890s (usually to be greeted in their native language).

Hunt quotes one visitor in 1891 who described him as ‘a tall, bearded, bright-eyed and genial septuagenarian’ who was a ‘generous and delightful host’. A bohemian and bon viveur to the end, Engels enjoyed wine and beer, women and song.

Hunt provides a comprehensive account of Engels’ life and work. He gives him full credit for his important contribution to the emergence of Marxism, from his collaboration with Marx in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 to his contributions to Capital (including the laborious tasks of editing and publishing Volumes 2 and 3 after Marx’s death) and his continuing defence of Marxism against both bourgeois critics and radical vulgarisers up to his death in 1895. Hunt gives Engels an occasional telling off for his polemical excess or factional zeal in manoeuvring against political opponents: as an aspiring Labour Party politician, Hunt has an instinctive preference for the sort of fudge and compromise detested by Engels. But, in general, his judgements are sound and well argued.

In his epilogue, Hunt defends Engels against detractors who blame him for the mechanical interpretation of Marxist dialectics (in relation to science as well as politics) in the Stalinist era. Though it is true that some one-sided formulations in Engels’ later writings were readily susceptible to misinterpretation, as Hunt insists, ‘Engels was never that narrow-minded mechanistic architect of dialectical materialism which Soviet ideology so exalted’. There lies, he argues persuasively, ‘an unconscionable philosophical chasm between Engelism and Stalinism’:

‘Neither a Leveller nor a statist, this great lover of the good life, passionate advocate of individuality and believer in the open battle of ideas in literature, culture, art and music could never have acceded to the Soviet communism of the twentieth century, despite all the Stalinist claims of his paternity.’

Hunt should be congratulated for refusing to surrender to that popular mode of biography which seeks to diminish great reputations by sneering at personal weaknesses and exposing sexual foibles. His study of Engels starts from a recognition that the life work of such an influential person to some degree stands apart from the imperfect life that produced it. Engels lived a long and busy life, playing an active part in the turbulent events of his century. Though his life was one of personal misery and public failure, it was also one of immense achievement and lasting importance. Hunt’s biography allows us to recognise his contribution and learn from his example.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

The Frock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the May 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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