Monday, October 12, 2009

Friedrich Engels: The Boy Wonder

Friedrich Engels

Adam Kirsch’s review of Tristam Hunt’s new book, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, makes the book seem readable and timely. If the Soviet experience will one day be deemed important and fashionable again, Marxism has never quite went out of style. Varieties of Marxism—the New Left, Cultural Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, etc.—retain a strong presence in academia even today. But whether Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have garnered as much scrutiny as the theories they espoused is another question.

And how valuable are their biographies? What Hunt finds most interesting about Engels is the dualism of his personality—on the one hand, he was a Manchester capitalist who enjoyed almost every aspect of bourgeois life, and on the other, he was a radical who advocated for violent revolt and remained the dedicated devotee of Karl Marx all his life. One thing the book does for readers is carry him or her back to the worst abuses of the British industrial revolution. Engels’ hypocrisy aside (and the reviewer makes far too much of it), he uncovered some of the very worst aspects of unfettered capitalism in his famous treatise on the subject, The Condition of the English Working Class in England.

The work was journalistic and empirical rather than abstract or metaphysical. The reviewer takes a few shots at Engels. He thinks that Engels’ revolutionary stance missed the important fact that English liberalism was already addressing the problems he raised in his report. Indeed, much of Engels’ materials were drawn from parliamentary white papers or inquiries. Moreover, Kirsch thinks Engels was—however charmingly—hypocritical insofar as he waited for the end of the bourgeois world even as he enjoyed that world by going on wine walking tours and fox hunts. But one has to study men like Engels who were willing to prophesy apocalypse and revolution even as they maintained their place in the middle class.

It’s men like these who lie behind the success of any revolution. A ruling class expects the bottom rungs of society to be disgruntled; it doesn’t expect its factory owners and other close allies to lose all willingness to collaborate with it. The French monarchy was in trouble when nobles like Lafayette became disenchanted with it. And the Russian monarchy was similarly endangered when men like Lenin’s brother—son of a government functionary—decided to kill the czar.

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