Magazine article The Spectator

The Champagne Marxist

Magazine article The Spectator

The Champagne Marxist

Article excerpt

The Frock-Coated Communist

by Tristram Hunt

Allen Lane, £25, pp. 443,

ISBN 978 0713998528

£20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 665

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.

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. …

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