The Frock-Coated Communist Tristram Hunt

Allen Lane, pp.443, 25

Marx is back in fashion. For decades Marxists have been an endangered species, but now the collapse of capitalism has caused a revival in their stock and Das Kapital tops the German bestseller lists. Tristram Hunt’s biography of Karl Marx’s shadowy collaborator Friedrich Engels could hardly be more timely.

‘Marx was a genius,’ declared Engels, ‘we others were at best talented.’ Engels was a socialist hack who had the nous to attach himself to the genius Marx. It was his friendship with Marx that differentiated him from the other would-be revolutionaries, now long forgotten, who sat up drinking and arguing until 3 a.m. in the bars of Brussels in the 1840s. But as Tristram Hunt makes clear, Engels was not just Marx’s stooge. Without Engels, Marx might never have made it. The two men were bonded by a co-dependent relationship that in many ways resembled a marriage.

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Engels’s great contribution to world history was not revolutionary at all. After taking part in (in a very minor way) in the 1848 Revolutions, he fled with Marx to London. He had quarrelled with his father, who owned a textile factory in the Rhineland. Now he was penniless, and his father agreed to give him a job in a branch of the family business in Manchester. For 20 years, Engels worked in the mill of Ermen & Engels. He sent half his earnings, as well as what he could pilfer from the till, to Marx in London. Marx was not poor. But he had a grand wife, Jenny, the daughter of a baron, and, for a revolutionary, he was pathetically anxious to keep up appearances. So Engels subsidised his bourgeois lifestyle, freeing Marx to work on his never-ending magnum opus Das Kapital. Marx treated Engels appallingly. He made him write his journalism for him and then took the credit. When Marx got his maid pregnant, Engels assumed responsibility for the child and passed him off as his own. Self-obsessed, socially conventional and covered in boils, Marx emerges from this account as distinctly unsympathetic.

Engels was a champagne socialist. He thought it was ‘beastly’ being a bourgeois and a manufacturer, but he was quite good at it. He justified his factory job by saying that he was using the money he made from exploiting the mill workers to liberate the proletariat by funding Marx’s great book. As a socialist he didn’t always practise what he preached. He hunted regularly with the Cheshire Hunt, jumping fences with the local squires. He lived with an illiterate Irish factory girl, Mary Burns. This made him guilty of the sin that he accused the factory owners of committing, taking advantage of the power relationship for sexual purposes.

After the publication of Das Kapital, Engels moved to London and lived in a house in Primrose Hill. His income came from investing in stocks and shares, but he claimed that this was ideologically sound because the stock exchange merely adjusted the surplus value stolen from the workers. Marx’s family — his daughters and blood-sucking sons-in-law — sponged off Engels shamelessly. To his credit, the generous Engels never resented this. After Mary Burns died, he lived in a Bohemian ménage with her sister Lizzie, kept open house and downed vast quantities of claret and German beer. It all sounds rather jolly. Tristram Hunt argues that Engels didn’t marry Lizzie until she was on her deathbed because he was convinced of the hypocrisy of bourgeois marriage, but Engels was also a womaniser who was once accused of rape.

Engels lived long enough to see Marx’s ideas inspire a mass movement. He wrote a best-selling popular version of Das Kapital, as well as some very peculiar attempts to force the natural sciences into a Marxist straightjacket. Some claim that he perverted the true doctrine of Marxism. Tristram Hunt defends him against these attacks, and shows that Engels has become the whipping-boy, unfairly blamed for the less attractive parts of Marxism. Engels was a good journalist and an effective organiser. He wrote one book which has lasted, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, when he was 24. This coruscating indictment of the stinking, foetid cradle of capitalism is still in print. Much of it was plagiarised.

Tristram Hunt has written a warm- hearted, engaging biography. At times, especially when the source material is sparse, it seems as if he uses the slender Engels as a peg from which to hang the entire history of 19th-century socialist thought. It’s not easy to make Marxist dialectical philosophy into a gripping read, and some of the socialism is wearisome. But what keeps the book alive is the very human story of the relationship between Marx and Engels.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated