Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

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9780805092486: Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

"Written with brio, warmth, and historical understanding, this is the best biography of one of the most attractive inhabitants of Victorian England, Marx's friend, partner, and political heir."―Eric Hobsbawm

Friedrich Engels is one of the most intriguing and contradictory figures of the nineteenth century. Born to a prosperous mercantile family, he spent his life enjoying the comfortable existence of a Victorian gentleman; yet he was at the same time the co-author of The Communist Manifesto, a ruthless political tactician, and the man who sacrificed his best years so that Karl Marx could have the freedom to write. Although his contributions are frequently overlooked, Engels's grasp of global capital provided an indispensable foundation for communist doctrine, and his account of the Industrial Revolution, The Condition of the Working Class in England, remains one of the most haunting and brutal indictments of capitalism's human cost.

Drawing on a wealth of letters and archives, acclaimed historian Tristram Hunt plumbs Engels's intellectual legacy and shows us how one of the great bon viveurs of Victorian Britain reconciled his exuberant personal life with his radical political philosophy. This epic story of devoted friendship, class compromise, ideological struggle, and family betrayal at last brings Engels out from the shadow of his famous friend and collaborator.

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About the Author:

One of Britain's leading young historians, Tristram Hunt is a lecturer in history at the University of London. The author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, he writes political and cultural commentary for The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

On 30 June 1869, Friedrich Engels, a Manchester mill owner, gave up his job in the family business after nearly twenty years. Ready to greet him on his return to his small cottage in the Chorlton suburbs were his lover Lizzy Burns and houseguest Eleanor Marx, daughter of his old friend Karl. "I was with Engels when he reached the end of his forced labour and I saw what he must have gone through all those years," Eleanor later wrote of Engels's final day at work. "I shall never forget the triumph with which he exclaimed 'for the last time!' as he put on his boots in the morning to go to his office. A few hours later we were standing at the gate waiting for him. We saw him coming over the little field opposite the house where he lived. He was swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming. Then we set the table for a celebration and drank champagne and were happy."1

Friedrich Engels was a textile magnate and foxhunter, a member of the Manchester Royal Exchange, and president of the city's Schiller Institute. He was a raffish, high-living, heavy-drinking devotee of the good things in life: lobster salad, Château Margaux, Pilsener beer, and expensive women. But Engels also for forty years funded Karl Marx, looked after his children, soothed his furies, and provided one half of history's most celebrated ideological partnership as coauthor of The Communist Manifesto and cofounder of what would come to be known as Marxism. Over the course of the twentieth century, from Chairman Mao's China to the Stasi state of the GDR, from the anti-imperial struggle in Africa to the Soviet Union itself, various manifestations of this compelling philosophy would cast their shadow over a full third of the human race. And as often as not, the leaders of the socialist world would look first to Engels rather than Marx to explain their policies, justify their excesses, and shore up their regimes. Interpreted and misinterpreted, quoted and misquoted, Friedrich Engels—the frock-coated Victorian cotton lord—became one of the central architects of global communism.

Today, a journey to Engels begins at Moscow's Paveletsky rail station. From this shabbily romantic tsarist-era terminal, the rusting sleeper train heaves off at midnight for the Volga plains hundreds of miles southeast of the capital. A grinding, stop-start fourteen-hour journey, alleviated only by a gurgling samovar in the guard's carriage, eventually lands you in the city of Saratov with its wide, tree-lined streets and attractive air of lost grandeur.

Bolted onto this prosperous provincial center is a crumbling six-lane highway that bridges the mighty Volga and connects Saratov to its unloved sister city, Engels. Lacking any of Saratov's sophistication, Engels is a seedy, forgotten site dominated by railway loading docks and the rusting detritus of light industry. At its civic center squats Engels Square, a bleak parade ground encircled by housing projects, a shabby strip mall dotted with sports bars, casinos, and DVD stores, and a roundabout clogged with Ladas, Sputniks, and the odd Ford. Here, in all its enervating grime, is the postcommunist Russia of hypercapitalism and bootleg Americana. And amid this free market dystopia stands a statue of Friedrich Engels himself. Fifteen feet high, atop a marble plinth and with a well-tended municipal flower bed at his feet, he looks resplendent in his trench coat, clutching a curling copy of The Communist Manifesto.

Across the former USSR and Eastern bloc, the statues of Marx (together with those of Lenin, Stalin, and Beria) have come down. Decapitated and mutilated, their remains are gathered together in monument graveyards for the ironic edification of Cold War cultural tourists. Inexplicably, Engels has been given leave to remain, still holding sway over his eponymous town. As a quick conversation with local residents and early-evening promenaders in Engels Square reveals, his presence here is the product neither of affection nor of admiration. Certainly, there is little hostility toward the cofounder of communism but rather a nonchalant indifference and weary apathy. Like the myriad plinths laden with nineteenth-century generals and long-forgotten social reformers that litter the squares of Western European capitals, Engels has become an unknown and unremarkable part of the civic wallpaper.

In his birthplace, in the Rhineland town of Wuppertal (now a commuter suburb for the nearby finance and fashion city of Düsseldorf), a similar disinterest is evident. There is a Friedrich Engels Strasse and a Friedrich Engels Allee but little sense of a town overly eager to commemorate its most celebrated son. The site of Engels's Geburtshaus, destroyed by a Royal Air Force bombing raid in 1943, remains barren and all that marks the place of his arrival into the world is a dirty granite monument modestly noting his role as the "cofounder of scientific socialism." Covered in holly and ivy, it is edged into the shadowy corner of a run-down park, overlooked by aging portable toilets and a vandalized phone booth.

In modern Russia and Germany, let alone in Spain, England, or America, Engels has slipped the bonds of history. Where once his name was on the lips of millions—as Marx's fellow combatant, as the author of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (the bible of global communism), as the theoretician of dialectical materialism, as the name regularly grafted onto city streets and squares by revolutionary insurgents and left-wing councils, as the man whose visionary, bearded features appeared on the currency and in textbooks and, alongside Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, stared down from vast flags and Soviet Realist billboards onto May Day parades—it is now barely registered in either East or West. In 1972, an official GDR biography could claim that "nowadays there is hardly a corner of this earth of ours where Engels's name has not been heard of, where the significance of his work is unknown."2 Today, he is so innocuous his statue isn't even pulled down.

The same cannot be said of his colleague Karl Marx. Two decades on from the fall of the Berlin Wall and Francis Fukuyama's hubristic declaration of "the end of history," Marx's reputation is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. In recent years, he has been transformed from the ogre responsible for the killing fields of Cambodia and labor camps of Siberia to modern capitalism's most perceptive analyst. "Marx's Stock Resurges on a 150-Year Tip" was how the New York Times marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto—a text that, more than any other, "recognized the unstoppable wealth-creating power of capitalism, predicted it would conquer the world, and warned that this inevitable globalization of national economies and cultures would have divisive and painful consequences."3 As Western governments, businesses, and banks faced an economic hurricane of free market fundamentalism at the turn of the twenty-first century—financial meltdowns in Mexico and Asia, the industrialization of China and India, the decimation of the middle class in Russia and Argentina, mass migration, and a worldwide "crisis of capitalism" in 2007-09—the Cassandra-like voice of Marx started to echo down the decades. The post-1989 neoliberal capitalist consensus, Fukuyama's endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution all set to be built on the historical wreck of communism, seemed to falter. And there was Marx waiting in the wings. "He's back," screamed the Times in the autumn of 2008 as stock markets plunged, banks were nationalized, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was photographed leafing through Das Kapital (sales of which surged to the top of the German best-seller lists). Even Pope Benedict XVI was moved to praise Marx's "great analytical skill."4 The British economist Meghnad Desai, in a work that formed part of an increasingly effusive literature on Marx, had already labeled the phenomenon "Marx's revenge."5

For it was now a truth universally acknowledged that Marx was the first to chart the uncompromising, unrelenting, compulsively destructive nature of capitalism. "It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors,' and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interests, than callous 'cash-payment,' " as The Communist Manifesto puts it. "It has drowned the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation."6 It was Marx who revealed how capitalism would crush languages, cultures, traditions, even nations in its wake. "In one word, it creates a world after its own image," he wrote long before globalization became a byword for Americanization. In his best-selling 2005 biography, Karl Marx, ou l'esprit du monde, the French politician-cum-banker Jacques Attali located Marx as the first great theorist of globalization. Even the Economist, the great weekly promulgator of neoliberal dogma, had to give him credit for "envisioning the awesome productive power of capitalism." As the magazine conceded in a 2002 article entitled "Marx after Communism," "he saw that capitalism would spur innovation to a hitherto-unimagined degree. He was right that giant corporations would come to dominate the world's industries."7 At the same time, Attali's book, together with Francis Wheen's popular biography of Marx (Karl Marx, 1999), helped cast the man in a sympathetic light as a struggling journalist, endearing rapscallion, and loving father.8 Since the 1960s and Louis Althusser's "discovery" of the "epistemological break" between the young and mature Marx—between the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts concerned with alienation and morality and the later, materialist Marx—we had already come to know of Karl Marx's early philosophical humanism. Now we were offered the biographical complement of a rounded, engaging, and strikingly contemporary individual.

Where does Friedrich Engels fit within this generous new alignment? ...

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