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Friedrich Engels: Capitalism’s Communist

3 minute read
Michael Elliott

At the time of the American Revolution, Manchester, in northwestern England, was a market town of about 30,000 people in the shadow of the Pennines, in whose pretty valleys workers spun and wove textiles in their homes. When Friedrich Engels arrived from Germany to work at the mill of his family’s company in 1842, the local textile industry had shifted from cottages to giant mills, and its products were sourced and exported around the world. The population of Manchester had exploded tenfold and Pennine hamlets had become towns in their own right. There were other cities, in England and elsewhere, that experienced the Industrial Revolution, but “Manchester,” writes British historian Tristram Hunt in his superb new biography of Engels, “was something else.”

Engels was just 24 — 24! — when he detailed that something else in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a work that is at once brilliant reportage and a sustained cry of outrage that makes Charles Dickens’ Hard Times — which covers much the same ground — read like sentimental tosh. Not the least of Hunt’s achievements is to show how what Engels saw in Manchester provided the essential factual underpinning for the theoretical work on capitalism that he and Karl Marx would later produce.

(Read: “Marx’s Engels.”)

Truthfully, there would have been no Marx, and no Marxism, without Engels, and not just because the two of them formed an astonishingly productive intellectual team. First as a capitalist himself — after leaving England to dabble in journalism and revolution back in Germany, Engels returned to work in Manchester for 20 years — and then as a rentier, his money sustained Marx’s family for decades. His devotion was such that Engels even assumed paternity of an illegitimate child of Marx.

Engels was not a hair-shirt socialist; he loved beer, good wine and pretty women, and was proud of his prowess at fox-hunting. He had a decency about him, marrying on her deathbed his longtime mistress. Hunt absolves Engels from the charge that would later be laid against him — that after the old man’s death he perverted Marxism in ways that allowed others to turn it into an ideology of terror. Still, he was no saint. In the viciousness with which he and Marx attacked their enemies in the constant segmentation of 19th century radical groups, it is not hard to see the seeds that would one day produce a bitter harvest of perpetual suspicion and paranoia.

And there’s the rub. When Marxism was transformed in the 20th century from a social theory to a set of guidelines for the conduct of state action, it became an evil, responsible for the deaths of millions and an intolerance that reduced the intellectual life of much of the world to a frozen stubble. With the pages of that narrative fresh in the memory, it is easy to read history backwards, and conclude that Marxism came into being with a livid birthmark that would disfigure it for ever.

(Read: “Marxism: The Persistent Vision.”)

But by being so careful to place Engels in the drudgery, squalor and dynamism of 19th century England, in the Industrial Revolution and the first great wave of modern globalization, Hunt enables readers to understand and share Engels’ sentiments. In Manchester in the 1840s, men and women were treated like animals. Why then should we be surprised that the utopian dreams of early communists were so appealing, or be so certain that they never will be again?

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