Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Entertaining Mr Marx

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Entertaining Mr Marx

Article excerpt

Byline: ANDREW NEATHER

THE FROCK-COATED COMMUNIST: THE REVOLUTIONARY LIFE OF FRIEDRICH ENGELS by Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane, [pounds sterling]25)

TRISTRAM HUNT'S lively new biography of Engels comes as Marxism is enjoying an unexpected resurgence of interest. Sales of Capital are soaring, while scarcely a week passes without some commentator quoting Marx on the instabilities of capitalism.

Yet whatever the bankers' travails, there exists nowhere a Left or a working class capable of exploiting capitalism's weaknesses to usher in Marx's "realm of freedom". What is interesting about this life of Engels is the light it sheds on why this is so in Western democracies -- and was so even before the horrors of the gulag gave his creed a bad name.

The son of a prosperous Rhineland mill owner, Engels's radical streak emerged at university, in the battles of "Young Hegelians" like him with Christian philosophers. These arcane debates are significant not least for their early indication of his love of a sectarian political scrap. They also led him into a radical career, starting as a contributor to Marx's Rheinische Zeitung, the beginning of their long collaboration. For Engels was a talented journalist, both far more disciplined and a better writer than Marx. Dispatched to Manchester to learn the cotton trade at his family's English mill, he soon began research on his seminal The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). It was to prove crucial to the arguments of The Communist Manifesto (1848), co-authored with Marx.

The irony, as Hunt notes, was that in part such vivid exposes of satanic mills and wretched housing forced the state to temper capitalism's excesses through child labour laws and the flowering of municipal government. As a result, by the time Marx published Volume I of Capital in 1867, the British working class appeared far from revolution. "The English proletariat's revolutionary energy has completely evaporated," grumbled Engels. …

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