Return to Reviews menu

Review: Engels – As through a glass darkly 

The Frock-Coated Communist - the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane, 2009, £25.00/€30.00.

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

2 May 2010

Of those who could claim to be the founding parents of the communist movement, Frederick Engels is one of the most pleasant, mainly because the most self-effacing. He was not martyred by the class enemy like Rosa Luxemburg or Che Guevara or by renegade comrades, like Trotsky. Nonetheless, he made his own sacrifice of twenty years in his life’s prime, toiling at an unpleasant job, made the less pleasant because his entrepreneurial role clashed with his principles, to keep his comrade Karl Marx in a position to concentrate on analysing the basic economic dynamics powering society.

It is, therefore, not strange that the class enemy has refrained from attempting to debunk Engels in the manner its members have Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Certainly, this new biography is not a conscious attempt at such abuse. Nonetheless it includes an accusation that is far more vitriolic than any single thing brewed by Robert Service or others of his kind in or out of the Hoover Institute.

That Tristram Hunt did this needs explaining. He did not set out, like Service, to blacken his subject’s reputation. Rather, he sought to co-opt Engels to his own political tradition. His problem is that this tradition is that of Britain’s “new” Labour, the fag end of the social democratic middle way between capitalism and socialism. (Hunt has been named as a prospective Labour parliamentary candidate.)  Since Engels was a scathing critic of the contemporary manifestations of the middle way, whether they were Britain’s Fabians and Independent Labour Party, Germany’s Lassalleans or France’s Possibilists (all of these being considerably more radical than Blair and Brown), this project may be described most kindly as quixotic.

Nonetheless Hunt ploughs on to the bitter end. Like Service, he writes off Lenin as Stalin’s legitimate predecessor. To his biographer, Engels “remained adamant that the proletariat would arrive at socialism through the contradictions of the capitalist system and the development of political self-consciousness rather than having it imposed upon them by a self-selecting communist junta.” (PP.364-5) From this he concludes:  “In the specific Russian context, it is most likely that Plekhanov’s post(?)-1917, now “Menshevik”, demands for a period of bourgeois rule and capitalist development before any effective transition to a socialist state would have been more in tune with Engels’ thinking than the Bolshevik will to power”(P.365) “Engels was inclined towards the end of his life to advocate the peaceable, democratic road to socialism through the ballot box rather than the barricade (whilst always retaining the moral (sic) right to insurgency)”(ibid) “Engels retained elements of both the Utopian socialist tradition (against which he had so self- consciously defined his and Marx’s approach) and the Protestant eschatological inheritance he had abjured as a teenager.”(P.367). For Hunt, as for other spokespersons of his tradition, socialism is, above all, a moral issue.

This moralism acts on the text in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, to an extent that might seem unbelievable for a normal New Labour supporter, had such expressions not been shown by his immediate predecessors (remember Blair’s CND badge?) Hunt seems to be genuinely horrified by modern capitalism’s excrescences, particularly their export to the semi-colonial and developing worlds. His horror is transported back in time to make his account of The Condition of the Working Class of England his strongest and most accurate analysis of Engels’ writings. (In general, it may be admitted, he is good on the material context of Engels’ life.) Hunt seems to admire Anti-Duehring, as well, though it would appear that his admiration is based on the fact that its extract, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific was Engels’ bestseller” (P.300). Certainly his admiration is not due to any non-New Labour leaning towards Marxism; he describes The Peasant War in Germany as written “with all the crassness of a first-grade materialist” (P.210)

This leads to the negative side of Hunt’s moralising. It is overwhelming. Morality leads him to deplore industrial conditions in the emerging “BRIC” markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China (P.369). His rejection of Lenin makes it practically impossible for him to explain them. Indeed, a reading of Engels’ own writings, on housing, for example, might have helped him. As it is, there is nothing here to protect him from the non-solutions of Brown, Bono, and George W. Bush.

The trouble is that, whether deliberately or through simple ignorance, Hunt distorts his subject’s Marxism. In his account of its basic economics, he identifies profit as surplus value. Indeed, he ignores the significance of constant capital in the productive process. Nor does he identify the problem in the basic formulation that has been central to the whole economic critique of anti-Marxists, not least Hunt’s own New Labour comrades: how do you measure the social necessity of a product other than by its retail price or by dictatorial fiat as under Stalinism? (There is, of course, a third way of enlightenment through discussion, but the workers’ state has to develop it.) On historic materialism generally, the biographer fails even more completely to understand fluctuating (yes, dialectical) relationship that is maintained between base and superstructure. Of the old Engels, Hunt asserts that he was “no doubt realising that his historical theorem was in danger of becoming either a banal truism (in the sense that one should, of course take some account of the economic context of a period) or an unattractive species of economic reductionism.” (P.217) Finally, (though earlier, as if to set the tone) there is the unsubstantiated remark that Engels “ended his days advocating a hideous technocratic communist future devoid of civic life.” (P.116).

This basic lack of theoretical empathy is magnified by the biographer’s inability to relate consistently to his subject’s political development. This is most notable as regards the evolution of Engels’ approach to national questions. He is rightly critical of his subject’s early concept of “non-historic peoples” but is bewildered by his approach to the Irish question from the 1850s. He contrasts this to his crudely economistic support of what he saw as the civilising missions pursued by France in Algeria and the United States against Mexico a decade earlier. Strangely, he does relate Engels’ Irish approach to his visit to that country. However he does not seem to understand that his subject drew from it a more general lesson that colonialism was not the answer to under-development, in that it created new contradictions that affected negatively the purely economic possibilities that the colonisers created. Later, Engels’ Russian perspective of revolution arising from industrialisation is portrayed as contradicting Marx’ projection of a possible development of socialist consciousness through the agrarian collectivism of the rural commune, the Mir. Here Hunt ignores the fact that Marx was influenced both by the fact that, in his day the Mir seemed strong compared to the infant Russian industries and by arguments in correspondence he received from Russian populists, there being no actual Marxist body in the country when he died. In comparison, Engels lived to see a much stronger Russian industry, an obviously weakening Mir and a small but real Marxist group to explain the situation.

Overall and understandably, given his politics, Hunt views Engels (and Marx’s) political positions through Lassallean spectacles. He cannot understand the concept of revolutionary war. This can be seen particularly in his handling of his subject’s approach to Europe’s two major national struggles of their time, those of Italy and of Germany. While generally favourable to both, Marx and Engels gave their most enthusiastic support to Garibaldi’s campaigns and the revolutionary mobilisations that accompanied them. They opposed the previous Franco-Austrian War not because of its pretensions to liberate Italy, but, in part, because it would not do so (as it didn’t) and, in part, because it tended to strengthen Bonapartist (and Russian) power in Europe. They had similar doubts (which were proved wrong) about the Six Week War between Austria and Prussia. Then, while supporting the aims of the subsequent Franco-Prussian War, they backed their supporters, Liebknecht and Bebel who refused to vote for war credits for the Prussian government. 

This position changed after Prussia had overthrown the Bonapartist Empire and united most of Germany under its leadership but persisted in continuing the war to grab Alsace-Lorraine. These changes have confused better political minds than Hunt (This writer considers himself one of them). Certainly they confuse Hunt. To him Engels “fell out permanently with [Lassalle] over the 1859 Franco-Austrian War: whereas Engels placed the struggle against Bonaparte above all else, Lassalle feared an Austrian victory would only accelerate nationalist reaction in Germany” (P.261). This is an over-simplification, the more gross in that Hunt seems to know and, perhaps to have read, Engels’ pamphlet Pound Rhein which opposes broader German support for Austria against France. The difference between him and Lassalle lay in Lassalle’s acceptance of Bonapartist good faith towards Italian nationalism and in his support for German neutrality as advancing what would become the Bismarkian strategy of a Prussianised German unity (precisely his acceptance of conservative, if not reactionary, nationalist aims.) Again, Engels’ admiration for Garibaldi was more than “schoolboy ardour” (P.219), but a sober appreciation of Garibaldi’s achievement as a revolutionary democrat. Finally, Hunt overstates Marx and Engels initial support for Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War; it was not “surreptitious” (P.251) but critical.

Other mistakes are less easily explained. Engels’ attitude to the various prospective leaders of the British working class would seem to fit Hunt’s projection of him as a prospective Menshevik in that he remained adamant “that the proletariat would arrive at socialism through the contradictions of the capitalist system and the development of political self consciousness rather than having it imposed upon them by a self-selecting communist junta.”(PP364-5) (Of course, in practice, the Mensheviks were even more elitist than the Bolsheviks, and Hunt’s New Labour mates are “a self-selecting junta” that makes no pretensions to socialism, let alone communism). In fact, Hunt concentrates on Engels’ relationships with the bourgeois socialists of his time plus Keir Hardie. Tom Mann gets only one mention. John Burns and Will Thorne get more, but there is no sense that Engels’ main quest for Britain in his last years was for the discovery of a native working class leader, a British August Bebel. In the end, the prosperity brought to the country by the empire on which the sun never set would corrupt all but Tom Mann. Engels’ under-estimation of Mann is far more significant than his toleration of Aveling. Yet the Aveling connection is given far fuller consideration than its political significance deserves.

There are more personal errors. Engels’ admiration for Wellington was more critical than is admitted here. Engels maintained that the Duke had taken the credit for Waterloo that should have gone to Blucher, whom he seems to have liked and admired, possibly because he was so very different from the archetypal Prussian officer of the time. Karl Vogt was not just “a suspected Bonapartist spy” (P.211) when he visited Manchester; Marx had exposed him as such and his exposure would be corroborated when the Bonapartist secret service files were published after the Franco-Prussian War.

Above all, there is the accusation that Engels raped Sibylle Hess, the wife of his old communist mentor, Moses Hess. This is based on two texts, one, the primary, by Engels himself who ascribes it to Moses rather than Sibylle, and a secondary one by Eleanor Marx-Aveling that refers to “a woman in the be passed over and covered up”.(P.145)  Hunt remarks merely that Engels’ undoubted relationship with Sibylle “seems unlikely to have carried itself over into violence” (Ibid) . He does not mention the considerable body of circumstantial evidence exonerating Engels; notably, the fact that not only his comrades, Born and Wolff but a Prussian spy, Adalbert von Bornstedt knew of the accusation, and “passed it over and covered it up”, even though Born broke politically with Engels after 1848.  Moreover Moses Hess himself, though later a political opponent (Lassallean) of Marx and Engels did not use it to discredit them. Indeed on his death, he bequeathed each of them copies of his last book which Sibylle saw that they obtained. Even in the repressive nineteenth century, this seems odd behaviour for a rape victim and her husband. 

There is one last point. This book is entitled The Frock-Coated Communist, as if this phenomenon were as unusual in Engels time as it would be in the next century. In fact, of course, Frock coats were all too common in this period. Certainly Marx wore one. They did not contradict socialist politics as much as did Hyndman’s top hat. Tristram Hunt’s title is anachronistic. It symbolises the fact that he has not done justice to his subject. He is indeed a worthy New Labour candidate. 



Return to top of page