Friedrich Engels was a champion of proletarian revolution who loved foxhunting, duelling and what Tristram Hunt calls “skirt-chasing”, whose idea of happiness (as revealed in a quiz set by Karl Marx's children) was a bottle of Château Margaux 1848, and who profited from the exploitation of workers in a Manchester mill.
But Engels was no “champagne socialist” - or claret communist - with the double standards that label implies. He was a single-minded political animal who wrote his searing critique of Victorian capitalism - The Condition of the Working Class in England - aged 24, stood with the Chartists in Manchester, and then co-wrote The Communist Manifesto with Marx before together they, in Hunt's words, “chased the tail of the great 1848 revolutions across the continent”, trying to put the manifesto into practice. Engels was charged with high treason in their native Germany - “Now you have really gone too far” protested his outraged mother - and fought on the barricades against the might of the Prussian military in the revolution's last stand - “The whistle of bullets is really quite a trivial matter” he wrote insouciantly to Jenny Marx.
More than 20 years later Engels was still trying to help the Paris Commune carry out its revolution. Even his work running the mill part-owned by his father - of which he hated every moment - was a sacrifice made to keep Marx and his family alive while Das Kapital was written.
Hunt sees Engels as a wrongly forgotten man, clearly preferring this urbane gentleman to the irascible Marx. It is good to see Engels rescued from the caricature of a sort of communist Ernie Wise to Marx's Eric Morecambe. But in the end we should perhaps accept Engels' modest judgment on why he sacrificed much for his friend (even claiming paternity of the child Marx had fathered by his housekeeper): Marx, he insisted, was the genius, Engels himself only “talented”. But the contribution of Engels, particularly in editing the later volumes of Capital after Marx's death, was immense. His book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and the essay “The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man” were both, despite the limitations of Victorian anthropology and the amateur science of Engels, real eye-openers to me as alternatives to the personalised feminism and radical nature-worshipping greenery of the 1980s Left.
Indeed, as an old libertarian Marxist myself, it is a pleasure to see Engels portrayed here as the antithesis of the miserabilist misanthropy that often passes for being left wing today. Engels comes across as an impassioned street brawler rather than a pathetic victim, a tireless fighter for “human emancipation” whose humanism rings out in his attitude to everything from nature to religion, setting him a world apart from the Stalinist system that dressed itself in his and Marx's clothes.
Of course Engels was not always right. Hunt wants to defend his contribution to the development of Marx's historical materialism, yet the author often forgets a key point of that method: that everything must be understood in its specific historical context. Engels the revolutionary thinker and doer was at his best in the age of revolutions. In later life, especially after Marx died in 1883, he was isolated in London and surrounded by the political pygmies of the emerging British Left. Until his death in 1895, Engels backed struggles such as the London dockers' strike, although his belief that Marxism had been adopted by the socialist Second International would be brutally exposed in 1914 when the workers of the world, far from uniting, were divided into warring national camps.
But then Engels himself was clear that, if his and Marx's work was to have future meaning, it would not be as an unquestion-able gospel to be repeated by rote. Hunt notes how in a letter written months before he died, Engels told a German political economist that “Marx's whole way of thinking is not so much a doctrine as a method. It provides not so much ready-made dogmas as aids to further investigation and the method for such investigation.”
How would Engels see the crisis of capitalism today? Hunt ends with the assertion that Engels now would once more be predicting “the fulfilment of his good friend Karl Marx's promise”. Yet if Marx is widely acknowledged as having a point today, it is only in one sense that Hunt describes both he and Engels - as a “Cassandra”, a soothsayer of catastrophe to come if capitalism goes unchecked. They were more than that. They saw the system's crises as pointing to the need and possibility for change that could build upon what they called the “wonders” of capitalism and take society forward. By contrast, prominent critics of free market capitalism today seem to be people like Hunt, a stalwart of the backward-looking Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.
I pick up any biography today wary that it will be another from the feet-of-clay catalogue, revealing some historical figure's less-than-perfect personal life. What this misses is that people who make history create something greater than themselves. Hunt does well to emphasise Engels' public life, although he cannot resist recounting the history of low personal shenanigans too. The real point about somebody such as Engels is how he rose above that stuff.
His was ultimately a life marked by personal misery and public failure, yet an heroic embodiment of Marx's view that Man makes his own history, though not in circumstances of his own choosing. Hunt notes that, while Marx is commemorated by that ghastly great tomb in Highgate Cemetery, there is no proper public monument to Engels. His book, while well worth reading, will not quite serve as that.
The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane, £25; 416pp Buy the book