By Ian Birchall
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The Frock-Coated Communist

This article is over 13 years, 2 months old
Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane; £25
Issue 336

Anything that encourages greater interest in the founders of Marxism can’t be all bad, and this well researched biography of Frederick Engels is certainly not bad. Tristram Hunt is a Bright Young Thing, successful academic and Guardian contributor, and his book will be widely promoted and discussed. As he points out, Engels’ critique of capitalism has acquired new relevance with the current crisis.

There is a serious account of Engels’ major intellectual contributions, from his early study of the Manchester working class to his later writings on philosophy and the oppression of women. His long intellectual partnership with Karl Marx is traced in detail, and his work is placed in intellectual context, showing how the great teachers learned from their predecessors – thus the Marxist theory of the state had its origins with the miner and mill worker James Leach. In his last years Engels had a major influence on the emerging socialist movement in Europe, on Karl Kautsky, William Morris, Keir Hardie and others. However, Hunt is too flippant about the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, failing to recognise their historical significance.

Engels was no saint and Hunt examines his colourful sex life, his hard drinking and love of fox hunting, his dislike of homosexuality and his dodgy political manoeuvres. More seriously, he made a very good income running the family-owned factory in Manchester, income derived, as Hunt points out, from the surplus value which he and Marx had analysed. Hunt seems tempted to sneer, suggesting hypocrisy on Engels’ part. But any socialist living in capitalist society has to deal with contradictions, and – apart from the well stocked wine cellar – most of Engels’ money went to good causes, especially the Marx family.

Hunt also gives a moving account of Engels’ long relationship with the Irish sisters Mary and Lizzy Burns – though he makes a rare slip in describing Mary as “illiterate” when two pages earlier he had given proof that she could read and write.

Hunt is generally sympathetic to Engels, seeing him as a “man of…attractive contradiction and limitless sacrifice”. In his conclusion he effectively demolishes claims that Engels was a forerunner of Stalinism. He ends with a description of workers in China today, bringing out vividly the parallel with 1840s Manchester. He leaves no doubt that Engels would have sided with the workers and not with their “Communist” bosses. Unfortunately this section is marred by Hunt’s colossal ignorance of Lenin, presented as an elitist vanguardist.

In many ways this is a worthy companion volume to Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx; scholarly but written in a lively style, it will hopefully encourage readers to turn to Engels’ works. Read it – but also read Tony Cliff’s wonderfully perceptive lecture on Engels, here.

It takes a revolutionary to understand a revolutionary, and Cliff grasps an essence that eludes the well meaning Hunt.

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