Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels


Engels has always deserved more consideration than he’s gotten from his English-speaking biographers. The two best treatments of his life and work have been around for quite a while but their sophistication, length and density make them a bit unsuitable for introductory readers. That’s our loss of course, but Sam Cooke was probably speaking for many Americans who also “don’t know much about history.” Gustav Meyer’s magisterial biography is very long, dates from 1936 and is hard to find while Franz Mehring’s treatment is part of his classic 1918 biography of Marx. That’s our loss, for it leaves Engels vulnerable to lazy, glib misinterpretation. Indeed, he is often treated as Marx’s silent financial supporter, the mechanical defender of ideological orthodoxy and source of theoretical constipation, the father of twentieth-century totalitarianism, the intellectual lightweight who reduced Marxism to a series of empty formulas, or the unimaginative disciple whose drive to organize a science of society distorted his friend’s humanistic impulses and made it difficult to develop Marx’s insights in a politically productive way. There’s something to these criticisms, but introductory readers really don’t have a nuanced and informed biography that would provide some theoretical, political and historical context within which to weigh them. After all, it was Engels whose theoretical and organizational work helped make Marxism the revolutionary and democratic theory of the labor movement. A superb political analyst, journalist, tactician, and – yes – popularizer, Engels played a vital role in the theoretical origin and practical development of the dominant trend of the modern Left. He deserves a good, accessible biography that would appeal to first-time visitors.

Tristram Hunt has written useful and thoughtful account of Marx’s “second fiddle” who, despite a lifetime of self-sacrifice, made important theoretical and empirical contributions to his friend’s grand project. Beginning with his turn away from German Romanticism and the heady theorizing of the “left” Hegelians and toward practical social criticism, Hunt chronicles Engels’s first-hand knowledge of capitalist industry, describes his long and fruitful collaboration with Marx, and ends with a description of his capable and principled stewardship of his comrade’s great work. Anarchism, utopian socialism and communism – along with the tactics associated with mounting the barricades and directly attacking the state – had reached their limits with the defeat of the Paris Commune and the headlong industrialization of Europe. Marx and Engels were the only ones who had the theoretical understanding of what was happening, and it was Engels whose devastating critiques, tactical flexibility and tireless organizing set the conditions for the labor movement’s embrace of Marxism. The development of a unified theory and practice of socialism was anticipated by The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, but Engels’s great contribution was the articulation of an all-embracing revolutionary theory and popular philosophy that reflected a new stage in the labor movement.

Like many other talented young men of their generation, Engels and Marx moved on parallel tracks toward philosophic materialism and the working class, both attracted to the French Revolution, political democracy and religious skepticism. Born into a typically philistine bourgeois family, Engels was aware at a young age that the poverty, exploitation, and demoralization of workers and artisans provided the foundation of his family’s wealth and social position. His breakthrough came when he was twenty-four and wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England while in unhappy exile in the family’s Manchester branch. Hunt spends a great deal of time on this remarkable book, which still stands as one of the seminal texts of both modern communism and nineteenth-century social analysis. Its description of the bourgeoisie’s relentless search for profit and consequent  immiseration of the workers,  its understanding of the crucial role of the  proletariat and of the need for the careful analysis of real life, its recognition of the limits imposed by the requirements of private property and of the consequent need for a fundamental change in the entire social order, its tireless educational work building the class consciousness of the workers and preparing them for independent political activity – all of this made Engels’s book unique, set its young author apart from his peers, and provided the grounding for his friendship with Marx.

Engels provided concrete and theoretical material to Marx throughout their collaboration, even as he always recognized the primacy of his friend’s genius. His Principles of Communism was really the first draft of the Communist Manifesto, his political-military analysis of the 1848 revolutions provided essential material to Marx’s brilliant political journalism about France, and Capital’s use of the Blue Books supplemented the many letters that Engels wrote in response to Marx’s requests for information and editorial help. Throughout their 35-year collaboration, Engels provided practical reinforcement of the positions toward which he and Marx had been independently moving before they met; if the theory of surplus value was his friend’s other original discovery, then Hunt is not wrong in his repeated insistence that scientific socialism was the joint work of both men.

Engels’s exceptionally broad range of interests and expertise extended to military matters, the impact of European imperialism and colonialism on the English workers’ movement, broad questions of political strategy and tactics, the historical development of modern socialism, the origins of male supremacy, the complexities of the national question, the critical importance of sustained agitation and propaganda, the refinement of historical materialism and the struggles against theoretical vulgarity. From his early work with Marx through the later Anti-Duhring, Engels was indispensable to the creation of the mass democratic labor movement that would find a home in Germany and Austria and move the center of European radicalism away from insurrectionary “red Paris.” If The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State established the foundations of Marxist anthropology and marks Engels as the source of socialist feminism, his reevaluations of the Irish and other “people without history” sparked leftists’ interest in the national-colonial question that would carry over into the twentieth century. His historical writings, journalism, independent military analyses of the Franco-Prussian and Crimean Wars and efforts to create a unified Marxist science testified to a body of work that went far beyond sending Marx money or helping him write Capital. That he was able to make such important contributions while accepting his responsibility for keeping his comrade out of penury and the communist movement afloat is a testament to his extraordinary range of interests, his fidelity to the cause, and his enormous commitment to Marx’s work. We should all have one such friend.

And what a friend he was. When Marx died in 1883, modern social democratic parties were beginning to take an organized form. After all his earlier contributions, it was Engels who spent the rest of his life editing the last two volumes of Capital, providing for what remained of the Marx brood, assisting visiting socialists and their emerging political organizations, keeping track of current events, providing guidance to all who asked, and – most importantly – continuing his fight for ideological clarity, organizational coherence and political direction. As corresponding secretary of the First International, chief organizer of the Paris Conference of 1889 which launched the Second and, always, as the Grand Old Man of the European left, Engels “embraced his role as Marx’s bulldog driven at all costs to guard his friend’s political bequest.” His prodigious output and tremendous range during the twelve years that separated Marx’s death from his own would be enough to mark him as one of the great organizers of the modern left.

Hunt makes a welcome contribution to our understanding of Engels’s role by focusing on his accomplishments during this last period of his life. Engels was always on the side of the most militant, organized and proletarian elements of the emerging socialist movement – even as he began to consider the possibility of different transitions in particular circumstances. As heavy industry, great cities and the rapid development of the productive forces continued to concentrate the proletariat, Engels revealed himself as a supple tactician who was always ready to rethink received wisdom. It was he who made Marxism the dominant trend in a broad swath of socialist parties from Austria to Germany, Russia to America. And where the lingering influence of Proudhon, Bakunin and Lassalle still affected the progress of a proper communist movement, it was Engels who carried on the fight and taught the labor movement how to fight for a bourgeois republic as an indispensable step toward socialism. It was his understanding that republicanism would be the foundation for socialism that guided the struggle for the vote and moved social democracy toward becoming a mass proletarian political party instead of a romantic insurrectionary conspiracy. And the proof was in the proverbial pudding. When he travelled through Europe toward the end to take stock of the movement’s progress, socialism had become a powerful, militant, successful tendency with disciplined parties, newspapers, parliamentary representation, networks of educational and cooperative societies, and thousands of dedicated agitators and militants.

This useful introduction to Engels is called Marx’s General – an echo of his affectionate nickname – in the slightly longer American edition that’s available in this country. It’s a better title than the English version under review. Hunt knows better than to pay too much attention to Engels’s frock coat. Indeed, he doesn’t engage in the cheap trick of denigrating Engels’s politics because he happened to be born into a bourgeois family – or even because he was a bon vivant who liked women, champagne, fox hunts and good pilsner. The important thing about Engels is what he did with his money, not where it came from. Politics is not a lifestyle. It’s a set of ethical positions, theoretical projections, and practical activities about public affairs. On that score, Friedrich Engels needn’t apologize to anyone. It’s we who are in his debt.

John Ehrenberg is a Senior Professor and Chair of Political Science at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. He has been an activist for years and has published widely in the history of political theory, Marxist and socialist political thought, and civil society. His latest book, co-edited with several colleagues, is The Iraq Papers, published by Oxford University Press. 


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

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