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He Kept Marx Going

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Private Collection/Roger-Viollet/Bridgeman Art Library
Friedrich Engels with Karl Marx and his daughters Laura, Eleanor and Jenny, 1864

The traffic of pilgrims to the grave of Karl Marx, in London’s Highgate Cemetery, may not be as large as it once was. But at least the grave still exists, presided over by the enormous black bust erected by the British Communist Party in the 1950s, after so many statues of Marx’s heirs have been destroyed. “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work,” said Friedrich Engels in a speech at Marx’s funeral, on March 17, 1883; and even if the second part of that prophecy seems doubtful today, the first is surely beyond dispute.

But what about Engels himself? Anyone wishing to visit his resting place will find no place to go. When he died, twelve years after Marx, Engels ordered that his body be cremated and his ashes thrown into the English Channel. It was as if he wanted to make certain that, as Tristram Hunt writes at the end of Marx’s General, “in death as in life there was nothing to detract from the glory of Marx.” Such self-effacement was the constant theme of Engels’s relationship with his best friend, collaborator, and alter ego, from the beginning of their partnership, when they were in their mid-twenties, until its end a lifetime later. “Marx was a genius,” Engels declared, “we others were at best talented.”

Such self-deprecation does not make Engels sound like a very urgent subject for a new biography. The problem is compounded by the fact that, for twenty years, Engels’s primary contribution to the birth of Marxism was to retire from writing and organizing so that he could earn money to support Marx and his family. After 1848, when their activities during the failed German revolution made them personae non grata on the Continent, Marx and Engels moved to England, whose liberalism sheltered them even as they attacked it. Marx’s story during the next two decades is one of great intellectual and human drama. Living in dire poverty in a Soho slum, enduring the deaths of children and his own tormenting illnesses, he gave painful birth to Capital and asserted doctrinal control over the burgeoning Communist movement.

Engels, on the other hand, spent that crucial period working at Ermen and Engels, the family cotton-spinning business in Manchester, sending part of his income to Marx, and living pretty well on what was left over. As Hunt writes, Engels’s existence was that of “a leading Manchester merchant—a sophisticated, high-bourgeois world of dinners, clubs, charitable events, and networking.” It was a double life, not just ideologically but domestically, too. Engels was officially unmarried, and maintained a respectable bachelor apartment for receiving guests, but he was actually living with Mary Burns, a working-class Irishwoman who was effectively his wife. It was a ticklish situation for a man who railed against the sexual exploitation of working women by their employers. “The right of the first night was transferred from the feudal lords to the bourgeois manufacturers,” Engels complained, but his arrangement with Mary—and the way that, after her death, he filled her place with her sister, Lizzy—itself has a rather feudal feel.

That the basis for Engels’s pleasures and Marx’s work was, ultimately, the exploitation of the proletariat—the very thing the two men dedicated their lives to ending—makes Engels’s Manchester years appear not just undramatic but potentially hypocritical. Engels does not sound very indignant, for instance, when writing to Marx about a day he spent with the Cheshire Hunt: “On Saturday I went out fox-hunting—seven hours in the saddle… At least twenty of the chaps fell off or came down, two horses were done for, one fox killed (I was in AT THE DEATH).” Engels’s pleasure in this aristocratic pastime is not fully explained by the fact that it was supposedly good training for the cavalry maneuvers he would be called upon to lead, come the revolution. But he refused to be embarrassed by his inconsistencies. “Would it ever occur to me to apologise for the fact that I myself was once a partner in a firm of manufacturers?” Engels wrote after his retirement. “There’s a fine reception waiting for anyone who tries to throw that in my teeth!”

Engels’s doubleness, which offers such a striking contrast to Marx’s single-mindedness, is why he proves to be a surprisingly fruitful subject for Tristram Hunt. The book’s original title in the UK was The Frock-Coated Communist, and Hunt makes much of the piquancy of the juxtaposition: the revolutionary in a respectable frock coat, the militant who indulged his taste for wine and women. Engels, Hunt suggests, proves that communism is not just a matter of party congresses and five-year plans, or even of Marx’s boils and pawnshops. “Neither a Leveler nor a statist,” Hunt writes,

this great lover of the good life, passionate advocate of individuality, and enthusiastic believer in literature, culture, art, and music as an open forum could never have acceded to the Soviet communism of the twentieth century, all the Stalinist claims of his paternity notwithstanding.

As this shows, part of Hunt’s case in Marx’s General is that Engels should not be held “responsible for the ter- rible misdeeds carried out under the banner of Marxism-Leninism.” And certainly all the crimes of twentieth-century communism seem far away from the gemütlich Sunday afternoons at Engels’s house in London in the 1870s, after he had retired from business:

The house specialty was a springtime bowl of Maitrank, a May wine flavored with woodruff. There would be German folk songs round the piano or Engels reciting his favorite poem, “The Vicar of Bray,” while the cream of European socialism—from Karl Kautsky to William Morris to Wilhelm Liebknecht to Keir Hardie—all paid court.

Such appealing vignettes, Hunt suggests, can help us rehabilitate Marxism from the avenging prophet Marx by casting it in the more amiable image of Engels. In the same vein, Hunt quotes Engels’s responses to “the highly popular mid-Victorian parlor game ‘Confessions,’” asked him by Marx’s daughter Jenny. “Favourite virtue: jollity,” “Idea of happiness: Chateau Margaux 1848,” “Favourite hero: None”—these answers of Engels are charmingly liberal. Hunt could have shown this even more effectively if he had contrasted them with Marx’s own to the same questionnaire, which Francis Wheen gives in full in his 1999 biography Karl Marx: “Favourite virtue: Simplicity,” “Idea of happiness: To fight,” “Favourite hero: Spartacus.”

Yet if there is a gulf separating Marx from Engels, and Engels from Marxism-Leninism, there is also a connection, which Marx’s General makes it possible to trace. For while Engels found more pleasure in life than Marx, he was no less committed to revolutionary struggle. It did not take Marx or Marxism to turn him into a Communist. And the more likable Engels seems as a man, the more terrible his theoretical ruthlessness becomes. It was Engels, not Marx, who wrote that “history is about the most cruel of all goddesses, and she leads her triumphal car over heaps of corpses.”

Friedrich Engels was born on November 28, 1820, the first son and namesake of a prosperous manufacturer in Barmen, in the Rhineland. The Engelses were Pietists, uniting a severe Calvinist discipline with a sharp eye for business. Hunt quotes a letter Engels’s grandfather wrote to his father before he was born, setting out a Max Weberian creed: “We have to look to our own advantage even in spiritual matters.” In such a home, even the most trivial infraction was treated as a soul-endangering sin. When Engels’s father was scandalized by discovering “a dirty book” in the fourteen-year-old’s desk, it was not the kind of book we might think, but merely “a story about knights in the thirteenth century.” This was bad enough for Engels senior to write, “May God watch over his disposition, I am often fearful for this otherwise excellent boy.”

He had reason to be afraid; he was rearing his would-be destroyer. In the 1840s, when Engels was openly preaching communism around Barmen, his father told a friend: “You can’t imagine how much this grieves a father: first my father endowed the Protestant parish in Barmen, then I built a church and now my son is tearing it down.” “That’s the story of our times,” the friend replied. Indeed, Engels’s relationship with what he called “my fanatical and despotic old man” seems to prefigure those of the Kirsanovs in Fathers and Sons or the Verkhovenskys in The Possessed.

The difference is that Engels was too much of a realist—and too devoted to his mother—simply to break with his family, which would have meant condemning himself to a life of poverty. Rather, his revolutionary education took place within the establishment, in tandem with his progress in his bourgeois career. In 1837, Engels left the Gymnasium to begin working in the family firm. The next year he went to Bremen, where he apprenticed as a clerk in a linen-exporting company, while also making his first mild experiments with rebellion. At this stage, Hunt shows, this mainly took the form of growing a mustache, and writing a poem about it: “We are not philistines, so we/Can let our mustachios flourish free.”

Things became more serious when Engels moved to Berlin, where he performed his required year of military service. This was the start of his lifelong interest in military matters, which earned him the nickname “General,” to which Hunt’s title alludes. (Marx was “Moor,” for his dark complexion.) More important, Engels was also attending lectures at the University of Berlin, especially those of Friedrich Schelling, Hegel’s great antagonist. “Ask anybody in Berlin today on what field the battle for dominion over German public opinion is being fought,” Engels wrote, “and if he has any idea of the power of the mind over the world he will reply that this battlefield is the University, in particular Lecture-hall No. 6, where Schelling is giving his lectures in the philosophy of revelation.” As Hunt notes, this was no understatement: in addition to Engels, the audience included Jacob Burckhardt, Mikhail Bakunin, and Søren Kierkegaard.

At the university, Engels made contact with the Young Hegelians and cemented his hostility to the established order in Germany. Earnest as his politics were, they did not make him humorless: he had a dog named Nameless, whom he trained to growl at anyone Engels identified as an aristocrat. In fact, when Engels first met Marx, in 1842, Marx disdained him as a typically frivolous coffeehouse revolutionary. Marx, who was two years older than Engels, had just become editor of the Cologne newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, and hoped to transform it into a forum for serious discussion of communism. He wanted nothing to do with what he called the “rowdiness and blackguardism” of Engels’s Berlin circle, and when Engels visited the paper’s offices, his reception by Marx was “distinctly chilly.”

But Engels was about to prove that he was a much more serious Communist than Marx had thought. From late 1842 until the summer of 1844, Engels lived in Manchester, sent there by his father to learn the intricacies of the international cotton trade; “Manchester Exchange,” he wrote, “is the thermometer which records all the fluctuations of industrial and commercial activity.” But he was also exploring the realities of life among the victims of the industrial revolution, to which his intimacy with Mary Burns gave him unusual access.

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