The New Relevance of Friedrich Engels: An Interview with Tristram Hunt


Mr. Leonard is a freelance journalist specializing in controversial political commentary. His columns and interviews span the gamut from geopolitics to economics to religion. He is a regular contributor to the HNN.US. His column, Is That Right? can be found in New York University's “Washington Square News” and at www.aaronleonard.net.

Dr. Tristram Hunt is one of Britain’s best known young historians. Educated at Cambridge and Chicago Universities, he is lecturer in British history at Queen Mary, University of London and author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. A leading historical broadcaster, he has authored numerous series for BBC Radio and Television and Channel 4. A regular contributor to the London Times, the Guardian and the Observer, he is a Trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Your latest book is Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. What moved you to write this book?

It grew out of my work on the Victorian city, which is what I did my PhD on at Cambridge. After that I wrote, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, and if you go anywhere near the Victorian city you meet Engels. I, like so many others, was blown away by Engels’s Conditions of the Working Class in England -- despite all the later critiques of it. Engels seemed to me a very fascinating character.

I was also struck by what the biographer Francis Wheen had done for Marx, bringing this distant character to life. What I wanted to do was explore Engels and Engels’s life in an urban milieu -- in terms of London, Paris and Manchester --explore the intellectual history and explore his character. He’s always been in the shadow of Marx and the shadow of Lenin really. So it came out of the urban interest, but I was drawn toward his character. As soon as I began to dig I discovered the fascinating nature of his contradictory status; the Burns sisters [his longtime loves], the battles with his parents... it all seemed like a compelling story.

There’s a back and forth that goes on in the book between Engels’ radical worldview and the actual world he occupied. Here’s this textile manufacturer --enmeshed in the cotton trade and all that that connotes in the mid-19th century -- yet it is because of this Marx is able to write “Capital” -- one of the great books of the contemporary era. How do you see this conflict?

I think it was important, as you say, to bring out the contradiction. It was revelatory to chart the income Engels received as an employee and partner of Erman & Engels, and how much went down to Marx and how Marx used it to fund the writing of Das Capital. To follow the money [you get a sense of] out how Marx actually lived to be able to write his great work and how dependent he was upon the textile trade for his own financial security.

One of the other things I wanted to bring out were the intellectual advances Marx was able to make because of Engels’s work in the textile industry. Matters of deprecation rates, machinery, wage levels, all the stuff Engels learned at Erman & Engels was then of use to Marx.

I think in terms of the contradiction, Engels was always aware of it and very touchy about it -- for example the battle with Duhring [who attacked Engels for his lifestyle] and lots of other socialists commented upon it.

I think on the one hand that contradiction appealed to Engels's idea of sacrifice. Coming from his Calvinist heritage -- he had to go out into the world, he had to go to Manchester, sacrifice himself so that Marx could produce the Great Work. So the contradiction was one of sacrifice as much as it was one of hypocrisy.  At the same time there was a kind of high-handed Prussian disinterest in bourgeois mores in terms of how could you marry being a communist and capitalist. That kind of moralizing did not really interest him -- its rather like the Royal Family in Britain today, they never apologize and they never explain.

Then there was living in a capitalist society. You did what you had to do you had to do. You made compromises to the existing situation and if Engels hadn’t there wouldn’t have been the money for Marx.

I found this to be a sophisticated biography -- not just of Engels personally, but philosophically and politically. This is a fact that seems to have eluded some, for example the Wall Street Journal review of your book describes Engels as, “the man who pioneered the mumbo-jumbo of dialectical materialism” (this from some of the same people who brought you derivative trading!). That aside, what do you see as Engels’s overarching intellectual contributions?

From my own intellectual background I think Engels's most interesting contribution is not in the terrain of classical Marx, in economics, it is in the application of Marx’s thinking in other areas. I think in terms of urban theory Engels is a brilliant thinker. His analysis of the space of the city, the form of the city, using a class paradigm to understand how cities are made and remade whether its Manchester, London or Paris. I think this presents all sorts of interesting insights.

I think Engels’s work on feminism in the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State is equally compelling. To point out the economic reality behind sexism is a great contribution.

I think on the colonial question, this great U-turn in thinking that Marx and Engels undergo regarding imperialism as part of the quickening mode of production, as part of this capitalist process. Also his developing the idea of colonial resistance which Engels really makes a breakthrough with his writing on Ireland.

All that I think is compelling, more compelling for me than his work on dialectical materialism. Even though that had such an ideological impact in the 20th century.

Of course it is the case that each generation and each political movement takes from Engels and take from Marx which elements they want. So now we all read The Conditions of the Working Class in England which has been reprinted numerous times in the past 15 - 20 years. No one read it 50 years ago -- they were all reading Anti Duhring and Socialism Utopian and Scientific. It will probably change again I imagine.

I was struck by the degree Engels was actually in the midst of world events as they unfolded. Can you talk about his experience in particular in 1848 and what impelled him?

Its a fascinating moment of hands-on revolutionary activism. They [Marx and Engels] were very excited by 1848-49. This would not be a proletarian revolution, this would be a bourgeois revolution which would then begin the process toward proletarian revolution. They wanted to see the old monarchies of the Austria Hapsburg empire and the principalities and kingdoms of German states crumble...to fast track that process.

Engels returns to his home town to try and raise the red flag of revolution, as the contemporary critics had it. You see here Engels as, in a sense, Marx’s General. The military man, the action man, happy to get his hands dirty. While Marx himself is back in the relative safety of Cologne editing a newspaper being the typical pamphleteer. Engels is out dealing with the Committee for Public Safety.

I think it is also incredibly important that they didn’t have this reputation as just a boasters and pamphleteers. They got amongst it. Engels saw a number of campaigns. Though it wasn’t “the storming the Bastille,” i.e., the single heroic fight you would have liked. There were an awful lot of skirmishes and a lot of the boredom of war as well. There was also the confusion of war. He was arrested as a Prussian spy for a moment. But all this I think gave him a sense of the practicality of warfare.

Also, and this is crucial in his military writings later, he developed a deep contempt for amateurism, a strong belief in only having revolution when the times are right. And an understanding of the futility of launching revolution before the socioeconomic conditions are correct.

The picture you present of Engels is of someone who had a passion for life. There’s this illuminating passage where you talk about this parlor game “Confessions” that Jenny Marx played with Engels where you get a more personal picture of him. What kind of person was Engels?

I think he was a man of enormous energy and markedly lacking the self-doubt which Marx had.

One always envisions Marx bent over his desk, the furious writing, the scribbling out, the sense of persecution, the health problems, family troubles and all of it boiling up inside him, actually killing him in one way or another. Engels was less complicated in one sense. He enjoys life, he enjoys the finer things of life, he enjoys physicality, hiking, hunting, or warfare. He enjoys playing the host, which Marx rarely did. Engels, on a Sunday afternoon in London would have the Socialists over  and there would be the bitchiness and backbiting but you also would have the open table, the wine and the food. He would be a compelling host. I love this idea of him ending the afternoons by drunkenly singing the "Vicar of Bray." I think there was this idea, seriously, of the joys of socialism and it goes back to Charles Fourier... these kind of physical sensual pleasures which are partly what make life happy. If you are a decent atheist these are the fun parts of life. These riches; intellectual riches, gastronomic riches, sensual riches, should be available to as many people as possible. There’s no shame in being a champagne communist. It's not a term of abuse, it's an aspiration. And Engels thought that I think.

One of my favorite quotes from Marx comes from the “Poverty of Philosophy” in which he says, “History is nothing more than the constant transformation of human nature.” I thought of this when you wrote, “The crass racial caricatures of the Irish he had once offered gave way to a far more sophisticated reading of Anglo-Irish relation, heavily enriched by his materialist and colonialist theorizing” To what degree did Marx’s definition apply to Engels?

I think enormously. You see a maturing and transformation of Engels on numerous levels. On the level of the Irish in 1844 he basically picks up where Thomas Carlyle left off and provides this racialist caricature of the Irish; drunken, sensual, wanton, bestial people. But then his relations with the Burns sisters, his visits to Ireland, all the rest of it, reshapes his ideas.

Politically there’s also this remarkable transformation which is that Engels is beginning to look at the arrival of socialism through the ballot box, through public opinion, that you did not necessarily have to have a very bloody, savage, quick proletarian revolution to get to socialism. Actually what he saw in Germany, with the the SPD [Social Democratic Party], what he saw going on in France, was the more the working class got the vote, that socialism could come about that way. He always held on to the fact that you had the right to instigate socialism through violent revolution, but he saw different options.

He also becomes a far more pluralist thinker. He is willing to have debate. The Engels of the 1850s - 1860s is very violent in his language. Very absolutist, crushing political opposition to Marx’s thinking. In the 1890s he is beginning to think about other voices, allowing a broader presence of dialog. There’s is a shift. I don’t mean he mellows. I think there’s an ideological and intellectual shift in his ideas about the arrival of socialism. He is always adamant that the vanguardist, top-down, overnight revolution that is going to take place in 1917 would not deliver the kind of socialism he wanted.

You end the book discussing Engels culpability or lack thereof,  for what came after him. Could you talk about that and whether or not you feel Engels is still relevant?

What I try and do toward the end of the book is trace the interpretation or misinterpretation of how Engels codifies Marxian thinking, and to a certain degree simplifies elements of it through Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which is the great work which brings so many toward socialism -- rather than having to go through Das Kapital. How a generation raised on Darwin rather than Hegel as Kautsky puts it, moves that thinking toward the kind of dialectical materialism, the totalizing scientistic socialism which Lenin and then Stalin are going to use to justify their project in the Soviet Union. How those ideas, as I suggested, lack the pluralism, the heuristic questioning nature of Engels in the 1880s and 1890s. I really don’t think you can blame Engels for the diamat (dialectical materialism) that Stalin codified even though they looked to him and quoted him, and they loved Dialectics of Nature and all the rest of it.

I think Engels today is profoundly interesting, not in terms of that -- his legacy in the first half of the 20th Century -- but, in terms of the critique of the human costs of capitalism. I do think there is an interesting historical parallel between the kind of rapid urbanization and rapid industrialization and all the environmental and social consequences which you see Engels chronicling in the 1830s and 1840s and what you see particularly in places like China, India, parts of Brazil, and Russia today. How those nations are dealing with the consequences of urbanization and industrialization just as Britain and Western Europe dealt with it in the 19th century. It is a fascinating historical debate. I think Engels's contribution to that his description of the poverty and alienation, immiseration which you see amongst working classes, working people in so called “brick nations” today. But also the cities, how they are laid out, those extremities of poverty, and justification of processes by the modern bourgeoisie. There are all sorts of parallels and I think Engels speaks to that very readily.

What are you currently working on?

I’m just starting work on a book, I think will be called, Cities of Empire. The story of British Imperialism through the urban form. Ten cities that tell the story of the British Empire.            

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Randll Reese Besch - 10/19/2009

Rarely do I hear much on Engels. Now is the time.