The Frock-coated Communist, By Tristram Hunt

Reviewed,John Gray
Friday 08 May 2009 00:00

Now that capitalism is once again flirting with disaster, there is a tendency to go back to its radical critics and say they were right all along. Marx looks particularly prescient, not only in focusing on market cycles of boom and bust but also in glimpsing the outlines of globalisation.

In one version or another, capitalism has taken over nearly everywhere, and its workings are interconnected as never before. Marx knew that the anarchy of the market would in no way be reduced as it spread throughout the world. He anticipated that there would be larger crises than any in the past. In foreseeing these upheavals, Marx showed a more realistic understanding of the inherent unruliness of capitalism than most economists in his own time or our own.

A crisis of the kind currently underway would not have surprised the author of Capital. That does not mean he understood its causes, or that he can show us a way through. More insight into the instability of finance capitalism can be gleaned from a late 20th-century Keynesian such as Hyman Minsky than from anything Marx ever wrote, while Marx's conception of a post-market communist economy has been disastrous wherever tried. The faddish return to Marx visible in sales of some of his books is mostly just a sign of loss of nerve.

But if this is true of Marx, can a case be made for the contemporary relevance of Friedrich Engels, who has long seen as a mere amanuensis? That is the question Tristram Hunt aims to answer in this beautifully written and consistently interesting new biography of Engels. Hunt's task is not an easy one, for in many ways Engels is an unattractive figure. Like many middle class revolutionaries in 19th-century Europe - he was the son of a prosperous German textile manufacturer - he turned to radical politics for a meaning in life that religion no longer supplied. "Having lost one faith" Hunt writes, "he moved swiftly to assume another: the psychological vacuum left by the demise of his Christian convictions was filled by an equally compelling ideology." As often happens when religious doubt is exchanged for secular faith, the new belief-system was fervently and adamantly held, with Engels writing ecstatically of Hegel's dialectic that it showed how "all successive historical states are only transitory stages in the endless course of development from the lower to the higher... Against the dialectic nothing is final, absolute, sacred."

Engels' insistence that history was progressive left him with little sympathy for those whose lives were sacrificed in the unending ascent. He had nothing but scorn for moral critics of the factory system, which provided the basis of his comfortable existence and for his activities as a revolutionary (aspects of his life he was careful to keep apart).

Hunt presents Engels as a pleasure-loving Victorian bourgeois male, a "rough seducer" who plied the fleshpots of Paris when he was not hunting to hounds with his neighbours in Cheshire. Readers in the 21st century may find this side of Engels distasteful, but his unabashed enjoyment of bourgeois life was not hypocrisy.

It was something more disturbing - a willingness to smile on human suffering so long as it was part of the unfolding logic of history. Like Marx, Engels believed capitalism was an indispensable stage on the way to the communist future, and if workers were exploited in his Manchester cotton mill it was all part of history's grand plan. Engels achieved fame in his own right chiefly through his depiction of the wretched condition of the English working class, but he never doubted that their misery was necessary.

Engels' indifference to the casualties of progress extended to entire cultures. He welcomed the American seizure of land from "the lazy Mexicans", and looked forward to the disappearance of Slavs - "aborigines in the heart of Europe" - in the next world war as "a step forward". Rightly, Hunt describes these attitudes as "deeply chilling", but Engels' Victorian racism seems not to be of much interest to him.

He is far more anxious to defend Engels against the charge that he was in any way implicated in communist totalitarianism. "Was Engels responsible for the terrible misdeeds carried out under the banner of Marxism-Leninism?" he asks. "Even in the modern age of historical apologies, the answer has to be no. In no intelligible sense can Engels or Marx bear responsibility for the crimes of these historical actors carried out generations later, even if the polices were offered up in their honour."

Strangely, Hunt fails to explore the possibility that there might be some intelligible connection between Engels' gloating delight in the elimination of "non-historic peoples" and the Marxist-Leninist readiness to liquidate entire social classes.

Like many Western historians, Hunt wants to interpret Soviet communism as a type of "Asiatic despotism", and cites approvingly Plekhanov's statement that the result of a premature revolution in Russia would be "a political abortion in the manner of ancient Chinese or Persian empires". But blaming communist repression on the supposed backwardness of its victims comes up against the awkward fact that the same repressive practices were imposed on countries with very different cultures and levels of development.

A ubiquitous secret police was a feature of life under communism in Mongolia and in Eastern Europe, while imprisonment of intellectual dissidents is as integral to Castro's Cuba as it was to communism in the Baltic states. Can it really be argued that the system of thought Engels promoted had no role in bringing about this universal loss of freedom? Even in our time, when the crimes of communism are forgotten and capitalism seems to be falling apart, the answer must be no.

If it is much too easy to exempt Engels from any responsibility for the consequences of his ideas, it is equally difficult to justify Hunt's claim that Engels' thought resonates positively today. He makes a reasonable case for Engels as a theorist of the city, peering beneath the "planless, knotted chaos of houses" to view the class-based structures underneath.

To maintain that "new perspectives on the nature of modernity and progress" can be gained from this eminent Victorian gives him too much credit. This is a an intensely enjoyable book, full of arresting vignettes and thought-stirring insights, but it deserves to be read for the vivid picture it paints of 19th-century ideas and politics rather than for any of the claims it makes for Engels.

John Gray's latest book is 'Gray's Anatomy: selected writings' (Penguin)

A double act that changed history

Born in Prussia in 1820, son of a textile manufacturrer in Barmen, Friedrich Engels did military service in Berlin before coming to work for the family business in Manchester: "Cottonopolis". Leading a double life as capitalist and Communist, he wrote his classic 'Condition of the Working Class in England' in 1844 and began a lifelong working partnership with Karl Marx. After their 'Communist Manifesto' in 1848, Engels supported Marx in London as his friend worked on 'Capital'. He died in 1895.

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