The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

October 29, 2009

In the preface to this formidable biography, sure to enthral all those interested in theories of revolution, Tristram Hunt claims that Engels has "been excised from the popular memory", which may explain why the US edition is titled Marx's General; Engels still rides on his co-author's coat-tails. Yet Hunt's biography appeared just as Das Kapital began selling again in Germany, while a Japanese manga version accessed a fresh audience.

In The German Ideology (1846), Marx and Engels, speaking as one, declared: "My frock-coat is private property for me only so long as I can barter, pawn or sell it, so long as it is marketable. If it loses that feature, if it becomes tattered, it can still have a number of features which make it of value to me; it may even become a feature of me and turn me into a tatterdemalion. But no economist would think of classing it as my private property, since it does not enable me to command any, even the smallest, amount of other people's labour."

Engels commanded other people's labour; the pockets of his frock-coat kept Marx out of the red long enough to write Das Kapital. While Marx went through the mill, Engels, the original champagne socialist, ran it. With capitalism in crisis, Marxism is marketable again, the tattered coat dusted down as the spectre of communism returns to its old haunts. As long as Marx is in print - from Manifesto to manga - there'll always be an Engels. Hunt's achievement in this absorbing biography lies in showing how far the self-styled "second fiddle" who bankrolled Marx was an original thinker in his own right, via such major works as The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845).

Never judge a book by its index. Hunt's few flaws - a failure to envisage the complexities of Engels' life and work applying to later revolutionaries and the short shrift given to earlier Engels scholars - are dwarfed by his great gift for economy in analysis without sacrificing depth. In a few incisive pages, he nails the way Engels played first fiddle on Ireland, transforming Marxism. If in Manchester Engels furnished "core insights into the actual workings of capital and labour", in Ireland he offered a testing ground for colonialism. When Marx "came to codify his thinking on Ireland and English radicalism", reversing his earlier thesis that revolution would occur first in advanced capitalist countries and setting the stage for the colonial revolutions of the 20th century, he built on Engels' research for his unpublished History of Ireland.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde defined progress as "the realisation of Utopias". The following year, in the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which Hunt hyper-inflates ironically as "the Bible of global communism", Engels sided with science against the dreamers. Making short work of scientific socialism, The Frock-Coated Communist reveals another Engels, dreamier, less dogmatic. To be a Marxist today is to be Utopian. Hunt's contention that the collapse of state socialism - Freddie's nightmare - invites a reassessment of a writer pressingly relevant across a range of issues is compelling.

Tailing his quarry doggedly, Hunt serves up a gamey dish. The figure he fleshes out, the foxhunting factory owner who played second fiddle to a tatterdemalion genius, who literally ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds, is both an "eminent Victorian of sacrifice and contradiction" and a sophisticated, sensuous socialist. If Red Fred, the Mancunian mill-owning Marxist with a penchant for wine, women and song, emerges as less revolutionary than his writings, this monumental study proves no statue is necessary to sustain the myth - the man is stuff enough.

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Tristram Hunt. Allen Lane, 464pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780713998528. Published 30 April 2009

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