He Kept Marx Going

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…

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