Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Tristram Hunt's Marx's General

Tristram Hunt's biography of Friedrich Engels, Marx's General, provides readers with an excellent introduction to the evolution of socialism in the 19th century.  Indeed, Engels repeatedly found himself at the very epicenter of European and even global history.  He was, of course, a student of German philosophy at its zenith, and was well-versed in the work of almost every philosophical giant of the early nineteenth century, including Hegel and Feuerbach.  What is more, Engels was an extremely successful industrialist in Manchester at precisely in time when Manchester's mills were conquering every market they encountered.  Most importantly, Engels was both also a famously trenchant social critic and an active revolutionary who participated in the revolutionary events of 1848 and tried to offer support for a variety of other social and political upheavals right up until his death in the 1890s.

As a biographer, Hunt seems most intrigued by the way that Engels was able to balance his bourgeois (and almost aristocratic) existence even as he plotted to destroy capitalism.  On the one hand, Engels worked faithfully for the family firm and revealed in aristocratic activities such as fox hunting.  On the other hand, he authored the Condition of the Working Class in England, coauthored The Communist Manifesto and other influential socialist texts, and worked tirelessly to promote working class revolutionary politics.

From the perspective of Russian history, Hunt sometimes seems to argue that Engels' is only indirectly relevant.  After all, Marx and Engels seldom focused on Russia in their work.  Nor could either man have predicted that a communist revolution would first be successful in the relatively backward economic conditions of Russia.  Indeed, if the Russian Revolution was at least partly the product of a very long history of intellectual ferment in the West, Hunt argues that Marx and Engels bears very little, or perhaps no, responsibility for Bolshevik or Stalinist totalitarianism.  According to Hunt, Marx and Engels' produced essentially humane works of criticism, and the political positions they supported, including feminism, the North's war against slavery in the United States, and government involvement in social welfare programs, have very little in common with post-World War I experiments in state coercion.  Seen in the light Engels' long life of revolutionary thought, Hunt argued that the Russian Revolution and its aftermath have very little in common with twentieth century state brutality.

Of course, Hunt's book is ultimately a biography. So while it touches upon all of Engels' many contributions to what has become known as Marxism, it does not offer a very meaningful perspective on the impact of his ideas on totalitarianism as a system of thought.  We can perhaps accept the fact that Marx and Engels were humane figures who passionately believed that capitalism could be improved upon, without necessarily accepting the fact that their belief systems did not have some deeply troubling if unintended consequences.

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