Book of the Month: ‘The Frock-Coated Communist’ by Tristram Hunt

July 10, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

‘Biography,’ wrote the poet Edmund Bentley in the opening lines of his 1905 collection The Art of Biography, ‘is not like geography. Geography is about maps. Biography is about chaps.’ This particular biography, however, comes with its own map, and such was the expansive, cross-disciplinary nature of Engels’s life-work that Tristram Hunt’s compelling account doubles as an insightful overview of the development of the labour movement and socialist thought throughout 19th Century Europe. Hunt charts the development of Engels’s philosophical and political thinking, from the vaguely nationalistic Hegelian idealism of his youth to his seminal work as the co-founder of international socialism, against the backdrop of nationalist and class-based struggles which characterised the latter half of that century, and paved the way for the bloody conflicts of the next one. Hunt’s narrative style is accessible and solid if unspectacular, only occasionally spoiled by the anachronistic employment of modern buzz-phrases such as ‘regime change’ and ‘the defence industry.’

It is a shame, therefore, that Hunt has chosen to litter this book with sarcastic snipes against the Marxist oeuvre to which Engels devoted so much of his life. Perhaps concerned that his choice of subject might disturb his fellow Cambridge Alumni, Hunt goes out of his way to reassure his readers that he is most definitely not a Marxist. Throughout the book, historical materialism is portrayed as little more than a variety of benevolent, paternalistic sadism (‘Ideally, Engels would have had them [the Parisian working class] a great deal poorer and more desperate’). In addition, a certain misanthropic conceit creeps in from time to time, encapsulated in a curious paragraph on the pro-Fenian leanings of Karl Marx’s daughters: acknowledging that the execution of convicted Fenians William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien provided what he cynically terms a ‘self-righteous halo’ to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Hunt expresses surprise that the ’emotional’ Marx daughters, who were sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause, were not more pleased by the killings but instead went into collective mourning.

In truth, it is the personal, not the political, that is of real interest to Tristram Hunt. He positively delights in the contradictory nature of Engels’s existence – the latter was born into great wealth, yet devoted most of his life to the struggle of the working class for political power. Hunt notes that the money that funded Marx’s writing of Capital ‘came ultimately from the same exploited labour-power – the mill-hands of Ermen & Engels, that juggernaut of capital.’ It is a curious fact, of course, but Hunt makes rather a lot of it – surely all research funding ultimately ‘comes from’ exploited labour-power, whether the researcher is a mill-owner or a humble middle-class PHD student. Hunt’s tabloid preoccupation with Engels’s personal life leads him to dismiss feminist critiques of Engels’s seminal feminist tract, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1894): the bald fact of the apparent contradiction between Engels’s feminist theorising and his consorting with prostitutes decades earlier was, in Hunt’s view, ‘surely of greater interest’ than anything that the feminists themselves might have to say on the content of the book itself.

Despite Hunt’s desperately self-conscious treatment of Marxism – one wonders, at times, why he considered writing the book in the first place, seeing as the entire Marxist project was obviously such a total waste of time and effort – this book has plenty to recommend it. When he is not trying to make a clever point Hunt is a good storyteller, and there is more than enough in this well-researched biography to make it a worthwhile and informative read.

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Freidrich Engels is published by Allen Lane.

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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr

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