1 June, 2009Issue 9.6EuropeHistoryPhilosophyPolitics & SocietySocial Policy

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Mr. Chitty and the Moor

Therese Feiler

engelsTristam Hunt
The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
Allen Lane, 2009
464 pages
ISBN 978-0713998528

If at some point an academic calls you the “global architect” of some –ism, you either have had an impressive career or you are a founding member of al-Qaeda. At the beginning of his new biography of Friedrich Engels, Tristram Hunt situates “one of the central architects of global communism” closer to the latter, deliberately conjuring the evils of Soviet state utopianism and referencing buzzwords like terrorist “insurgency” and “guerrilla warfare”. But the sulphur fog clears after the introduction. Over the course of this well-researched and entertaining biography, Hunt shows how Engels’s social and political critique was not ferocious or fanatical, but rather nuanced and circumspect. Unlike many 20th-century communists, who willingly used violence to translate their imagined utopia into practice, Engels proved much more realistic about the revolution on the horizon. Contrary to popular associations, Hunt argues, this “second fiddle” ideologue and life-long friend to Karl Marx was neither dictator nor enthusiast: in fact, he was a toff.

Unlike Marx, Engels was born into a morality-conscious family of wealthy conservatives, devoted to evangelical piety and a starchy Protestant work ethic. The air was thick with dutiful domesticity, well-groomed paternalism, and a heavy dose of religiosity. Engels, the atheist-to-be, would always remain impressed by this religious upbringing. His father owned a cotton spinning and thread producing company in the small Rhineland town of Barmen, and by 1840, it would become the empire of Ermen and Engels, stretching across Europe from the German homeland to Manchester, England. Tradition demanded Engels become a Fabrikant like his father.

Instead, he became the lifelong disruptive factor in his father’s enchanted worldview. Though the young Engels was sent to the town of Bremen to hone his business skills, he spent much of his time there fencing, drinking, skirt-chasing, and reading blasphemous books distributed by the progressive Young Germany. At university in Berlin, he embraced the “dragon seed” of Hegel, and cloaked under the journalistic pseudonym Friedrich Oswald, he began to attack the miserable conditions of mill workers in his hometown of Barmen.

During these years he met Karl Marx, whose explosive hairstyle had brought him the nickname “Moor”. Together they embarked on a communist voyage that would leave their two names inextricably connected in the history books. Upon being sent to Manchester in 1842 to become a proper merchant, the young Friedrich’s ivory tower of theoretical philosophy crumbled, and the rough and raw situation of the English working class sharpened his senses to reality. The facts spoke for themselves, and at the precocious age of 24, he wrote the chilling Condition of the Working Class in England.

Despite his criticism of the very sort of exploitation that brought his family money, Engels continued to accept a monthly allowance from his parents. In 1848, it allowed him to travel to Paris, “the capital of the nineteenth century”, to write, drink, and think together with Karl Marx. A lifelong friendship was forged over the pair’s theoretical agreement about the rotten state of world affairs.

In 1848, hunted by arrest warrants and Prussian spies, Marx and his family fled to London. Engels returned to Manchester, taking up a job at Ermen and Engels, and he would devote the next 20 years to earning money as a merchant to support Marx’s work on Das Kapital. Despite his social and political views, Engels was not ashamed to openly love the lush life of a German expatriate. He became adept in the art of the English upper-crust life, dining at posh restaurants, hunting foxes, and joining half a dozen Manchester gentlemen’s clubs. Having earlier despised frock-coated philistines, he now proudly donned the patrician attire himself.

The paradox of the communist toff proves uncomfortable for those who equate communism exclusively with the hard-working urban proletariat suffering under despicable conditions. Cynics tend to chastise the champagne socialist: once one can afford it, any extravagant opinion can be tossed up and played with over port. But in choosing not to break with his origins, Engels simply gave in to necessity and practicality. He milked the system for the greater cause, giving generously until his death in 1895.

Most importantly, Engels supported Marx and his family, as well as a whole clique of loving dependants. More than half of Engels’s annual income went to funding the Marxes’ housing and education in London, family holidays, and Marx’s journalistic exploits. Marx’s wife Jenny gratefully looked forward to the letters and cheques from “Mr. Chitty”. Beyond money, Engels provided Marx with empirical facts for his treatises, as well as theoretical input and much-needed editing for the gargantuan Das Kapital. From 1870 onwards, Engels, the “General” and “Grand Llama of Regent’s Park”, pulled the strings behind the advancement of world socialism.

For a modern-day audience drilled to believe that the age of grand narratives is dead and that everything is but a Grand Failure, Hunt’s biography is refreshing. It toes the line between grounding the political ideas of socialism in their historical context on the one hand and declaring them timeless on the other. As an added bonus, the biography’s details feed the voyeuristic mind: see Marx’s 1866 letter to Engels, in which the principal architect of global communism laments the “the itching and scratching between [his] testis and posterior”. Hunt highlights Engels’s Jekyll-and-Hyde character: he was both a proto-feminist and a lover of prostitutes, both a merchant fox hunter and a loving socialist revolutionary. Yet The Frock-Coated Communist hardly forsakes political and theoretical realms in pursuit of such personal details. Hunt’s primary interest rests in recovering the left-wing criticism from Engels’s pages that remains relevant in a contemporary context: we need not re-invent the wheel to see much of what is going wrong today.

This includes engaging the fatal argument against Marxism—and, by extension, against Engels—which is that Marxism’s ideas led to Josef Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. Hunt rightly points out the flaw of such argumentation. Despite their interest in the parousia of revolution, Marx and Engels were too pragmatic to believe in the quick possibility of a workers’ paradise hic et nunc. Throughout their lives, both Marx and Engels argued against enthusiasts of all stripes. In the 1840s it was the Owenites, Charles Fourier, and followers of Saint-Simon’s utopian socialism, whom Marx and Engels deemed too reminiscent of the Radical Reformation. Their demands for equality through violence were at odds with Engels’s insistence on the necessity of authority and order. Marx and Engels were equally suspicious of Mikhail Bakunin, the globetrotting Russian anarchist, whom the early Berlin intellectuals spurned as a hot-headed grump.

Hunt notes that Engels is falsely regarded as “a pioneer theorist of guerrilla warfare”, noting that the thinker remained deeply sceptical of any sort of insurgency. In 1886, a pragmatist Engels chided Henry Mayers Hyndman, who had gathered 8,ooo unemployed East Enders for riots in the West End: “What has been achieved is to equate socialism with looting in the minds of the bourgeois public and, while this may not have made matters much worse, it has certainly got us no further”, Engels wrote. Stalin’s socialism, an all-encompassing philosophical system that cemented and centralised the tovarishch’s absolute power, would have been anathema to Engels’s ever-critical mind.

The thinking of Marx and Engels is as far from dogmatism as it is from an inevitable precursor of dictatorship. More than an ideology, it is a critical method, one that Hunt acutely applies to contemporary sweatshops in his epilogue. Occasional dictatorship and terrorism terminology fortunately turns out to be more redressing than j’accuse. Having read this book, even the last dreamy post-materialist will realise that Engels’s critique has not ceased to be explosive.

Therese Feiler is reading for a DPhil in Theology at Exeter College, Oxford.