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Marx\'s General - The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels :: The Progressive Torrents Community
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Marx's General - The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels


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240.22 MB

Date/time added:

2015-10-25 21:32:07

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Audio Books : Biography : MP3/64Kbps : English

In his new book, “Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels,” Tristram Hunt argues that Engels has become a convenient scapegoat, too easily blamed for the state crimes of the Soviet Union and Communist Southeast Asia and China. “Engels is left holding the bag of 20th-century ideological extremism,” Mr. Hunt writes, “while Marx is rebranded as the acceptable, postpolitical seer of global capitalism.” Mr. Hunt, a young British academic and a columnist for The Guardian, embarks on a two-part rescue mission in “Marx’s General.” He wants first to show us the human Engel, portraying him as gregarious and bighearted. He also works mightily to defend Engels against most of the calumnies later committed in his and Marx’s names.

Mr. Hunt is so successful at the first goal that the big takeaway of “Marx’s General” may be that Engels, best known as a ruthless party tactician, comes across as the Mario Batali of international communism: a jovial man of outsize appetites who was referred to by his son-in-law as “the great beheader of Champagne bottles.”

A few of this book’s piquant details: Engels was proud of his lobster salad and liked to fox hunt. He hosted regular Sunday parties for London’s left-wing intelligentsia and, as one regular put it, “no one left before 2 or 3 in the morning.” On a personality quiz, three of Engels answers were: “Favorite virtue: jollity”; “Idea of happiness: Château Margaux 1848”; “Motto: take it easy.”

Friedrich Engels’s motto was take it easy? Clearly there is some cognitive static in our sense of this man, and it is one of the achievements of Mr. Hunt’s book that he pulls the multiple strands of Engels’s personality into a nearly coherent whole.

Engels seemed to lead a kind of double existence almost from the start. Born in 1820, the son of a wealthy German textile manufacturer, he led a life of privilege and was expected to go into the family business. He was more interested, however, in poetry and later in journalism. He felt his way toward his leftist politics through a passionate interest in Hegel’s dialectical philosophical method. When Engels was in his early 20s, his father sent him to work in the family business in Manchester, England. In the horrors he saw there (child labor, the despoiled environment and overworked and impoverished laborers) he spied the grim future of capitalism and the industrial age. His time in Manchester led him to write “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1845), a book Mr. Hunt correctly calls “a tour de force of urban industrial horror.”

Engels’s writing caught the attention of Marx, and the two bonded in Paris during what Mr. Hunt describes as “10 beer-soaked days.” They would remain friends for the next four decades, as they together wrote “The Communist Manifesto,” witnessed the failed Continental revolutions of 1848 and fanned the flames of international communism. Engels would return to Manchester to work for 19 more years in his family business, at a job he loathed, in order to support Marx while he wrote “Das Kapital.”

There is a good deal of gentle comedy in “Marx’s General.” Marx loved to tweak Engels for the ease with which he mingled with upper-middle-class Victorian society in Manchester: the fox hunting, the clubs, the meals. “So now you’re a member of the Exchange, and altogether respectable,” Marx wrote him. “My congratulations. Some time I should like to hear you howling amidst that pack of wolves.”

Marx cashed the checks Engels sent, however, and loved how Engels doted on Marx’s daughters. To spare Marx embarrassment, Engels even accepted the paternity of Marx’s illegitimate son. Engels had no children of his own. He rejected marriage as an institution, and lived with his great love, Mary Burns, an uneducated Irish girl, like husband and wife. When Mary died in 1863, Engels lived with her sister Lizzy, and married her on her deathbed. In 1870, his time in Manchester over, Engels and Lizzy Burns moved to London, where they lived a short walk from the Marx household. After Marx died in 1883, Engels edited the second and third volumes of “Das Kapital,” and his newspaper-filled house became a mecca for socialists from around the world.

In later books like “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” Engels delivered comprehensible guides to Marxism, although critics accused him of both simplifying and deviating from Marx’s ideas. Engels died of throat cancer in 1895 at 74.

As artfully as Mr. Hunt flushes out Engels’s human side, he can’t — and to be fair, doesn’t try to — hide the brutal ideologue that also existed inside his cranium. Engels was an advocate, on at least one occasion, of ethnic cleansing; his writing about science helped lead to the abominations of Soviet-style scientific inquiry, which dismissed results that might be seen as bourgeois. He was a master tactician whose purging of rivals in political organizations foreshadowed later purges.

Ultimately, however, Mr. Hunt largely exonerates him. “In no intelligible sense can Engels or Marx bear culpability for the crimes of historical actors carried out generations later,” he writes, “even if the policies were offered up in their honor.” Engels was skeptical of top-down revolutions, Mr. Hunt notes, and later in life advocated a peaceful, democratic road to socialism. He connects Engels the man to Engels the thinker. “This great lover of the good life, passionate advocate of individuality, and enthusiastic believer in literature, culture, art and music as an open forum could never have acceded to the Soviet Communism of the 20th century, all the Stalinist claims of his paternity notwithstanding,” he writes. Engels almost certainly was, in other words, the kind of man Stalin would have had shot.

At the end of this vivid and thoughtful biography, you are quite persuaded that Friedrich Engels would have been a fine man to drink a Margaux with. And it is surely true, as Mr. Hunt puts it, that Engels’s larger critique of capitalism — and his hope for a more dignified kind of humanity — “resonates down the ages.” But what exactly was it about Engels’s thinking and writing, as well as Marx’s, of course, that made it so toxic in the hands of almost everyone else? A more penetrating examination of that question might have made “Marx’s General” an excellent book instead of merely a good one.

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