Tristram Hunt

Eat, drink and be communist

In a time of recession, Tristram Hunt celebrates the inspiration of Friedrich Engels, who saw no contradiction between socialist beliefs and aristocratic pleasures

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In 1890 Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, celebrated his 70th birthday. ‘We kept it up till half past three in the morning,’ he boasted to Laura Lafargue, daughter of his old friend Karl Marx, ‘and drank, besides claret, sixteen bottles of champagne — that morning we had had 12 dozen oysters.’

This was not an isolated act of indulgence. During the 1870s his Primrose Hill home had become a popular venue for socialist excess. ‘On Sundays, Engels would throw open his house,’ recalled the communist August Bebel. ‘On those puritanical days when no merry men can bear life in London, Engels’s house was open to all, and no one left before 2 or 3 in the morning.’ Pilsner, claret, and vast bowls of Maitrank — a May wine flavoured with woodruff — were consumed while Engels sang German folk-songs or drunkenly recited ‘The Vicar of Bray’.

Engels’s personal exuberance was an expression of his political ideology: an almost Rabelaisian belief in the capacity of socialism to fulfil human pleasure. It was an attractive, seductive approach to progressive politics which has since been abandoned. In the 20th century, the myriad factions which Marx and Engels inspired systematically sucked the life out of left-wing politics. Composite motions, sensible dress, study groups and a paranoid avoidance of decadence — these were the attributes of proper socialists. But that was never how Engels envisioned it. He was the first, greatest and most unapologetic champagne communist.

Perhaps it was a reaction to a relentlessly prim childhood. The son of a reactionary, God-fearing capitalist, Engels was brought up in the Rhineland town of Barmen destined to join the family textile firm. But the prospect of Calvinist piety and bourgeois self-reserve rapidly lost its appeal. Sent as an apprentice to the more freewheeling city of Bremen, Engels’s thirst for enjoyment quickly became apparent. ‘We now have a complete stock of beer in the office; under the table, behind the stove, behind the cupboard, everywhere are beer bottles,’ he wrote to his sister Marie before going on to describe his hectic diary of dinner engagements, Beethoven concerts and fencing duels.

In Berlin, where he was sent for military training, the partying continued as Engels fell in with the notorious Doctor’s Club of heavy-drinking, hard-philosophising young Hegelians. They smashed up beer cellars, pored over pornography and then debated the errors of Hegelian idealism long into the night.

With the wine went the women. Late in life, Engels would pen a celebrated tract — The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State — ridiculing the bourgeois hypocrisy of marriage and urging a more relaxed system of partner-swapping and communal child-rearing. He would also condemn prostitution as ‘the most tangible exploitation — one directly attacking the physical body — of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie’, but he exhibited no such reservations in the mid-1840s as he indulged his passion for Parisian whores. ‘If I had an income of 5,000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces,’ he wrote to the more monogamous Marx. ‘If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes, well and good!’

By this time Marx and Engels had joined intellectual forces and one of their first works, The German Ideology, deftly elucidated communism’s promise of human pleasure. As competition and private property gave way to communism men would regain ‘control of exchange, production and the mode of their mutual relationship’ and ‘the alienation between men and their products’ would dissolve. In contrast to capitalist society, where the division of labour forced each man into ‘a particular, exclusive sphere of activity’, communist society would regulate production and thereby ensure that ‘nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes... to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner’. It was the leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

But just as that promise seemed tangible, Engels was hurled back to the rigid necessity of middle-class respectability. After the failure of the 1848-49 European revolutions, Marx retreated to the British Museum to write Das Kapital, forcing Engels to take a job at his father’s Manchester mill. For the next 20 years he lived a double-life as cotton lord and revolutionary communist. He found the smug, dissenting prosperity of mid-Victorian Manchester a grinding bore.

First, there was the unavoidable contradiction of his position as a mill-owning Marxist — ‘most beastly of all is the fact of being a bourgeois who actively takes sides against the proletariat’ — and then the provincial philistinism of a city wholly given over to cotton and cash. ‘I drink rum and water and spend my time ’twixt twist and tedium,’ he wrote in 1851. Worst of all, ‘For six months past I have not had a single opportunity to make use of my acknowledged gift for mixing a lobster salad — quelle horreur; it makes one quite rusty.’

With his nose for the good life, Engels found his release from the banality of the sewing thread business in riding out with the Cheshire Hounds alongside the Marquis of Grosvenor and Earl of Crewe. Indeed, Engels stands as the revolutionary Left’s greatest blood-sports enthusiast, a patron of hare-coursing as well as fox-hunting. ‘On Saturday I went out fox-hunting — seven hours in the saddle,’ he wrote back to Marx, festering away in Bloomsbury. ‘That sort of thing always keeps me in a state of devilish excitement for several days; it’s the greatest physical pleasure I know.’

Yet such aristocratic excitement was entirely compatible with Engels’s political philosophy. Both he and Marx always regarded the elimination of all social and political inequality as Utopian nonsense. Engels, the bohemian aficionado of the high life, was never a leveller. ‘Living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated,’ he wrote. ‘The concept of a socialist society as a realm of equality is a one-sided French concept.’

Instead, Engels believed in cascading the pleasures of life — food, sex, drink, culture, travel — down to all classes. Socialism was not a never-ending committee meeting, but a life of satiated enjoyment. Occasionally, the British Left has managed to echo this ideal — from Nye Bevan’s reputed ‘nothing too good for the working class’ to Tony Crosland’s hope for ‘brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafés, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places’.

But for the most part, 20th-century Labourism let go of the importance of pleasure and fell into the trap of class envy. And as the recession bites, that tradition has re-emerged. Yet as Engels’s life and writings suggest, there is no contradiction between a political programme offering greater social justice alongside richer personal fulfilment. Far from being a term of abuse, ‘champagne communism’ should be a political aspiration.