The global recession, for some, has called into question the credentials of capitalism as the central organizing principle for labour and markets. Regardless of one’s ideological persuasion, we have all dusted off the classics as modern macroeconomic theory has failed to explain much of the complex phenomena we are witnessing. For some, the so-called “universalizing tendency” of capitalism has reached a roadblock. It makes sense, therefore, that alongside John Maynard Keynes or Adam Smith, many have turned to Karl Marx.
When we think about Marx, we’re inevitably reminded of his so-called sidekick, Friedrich Engels, who has served as the punchline to every undergraduate’s favourite joke: that Engels endured the trying burden of managing his father’s textile factory to underwrite the most famous indictment of capitalism, The Communist Manifesto.
While such a reading is convenient and humorous, it is facile. Tristram Hunt’s recent biography, The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, of this much maligned (or at least, mostly forgotten) figure of history does justice to a man who contributed immensely to the work we often attribute strictly to Marx. Engels’ story is important not simply because he was influential, his story is relevant in how it interfaces with the complex ideas he witnessed and grappled with. The success of Hunt’s book is in its context. As we read about Engels wrestling with Hegel or philosophizing in Berlin lecture halls (he shared a university classroom with, among other heavyweights, Soren Kierkegaard), we are reading what is essentially a history of ideas.
Engels was born in the Prussian Rhineland in November 1820 to a prosperous—yet, as Engels saw it, puritanical—mill owner. After serving in the army and shuttling around continental Europe, he spent much of his most formative years in Manchester, England—or, as it was called, Cottonopolis. Manchester serves as a resonant focal point of Engels’ narrative: Here, he worked at Ermen and Engels, a branch of his father’s business. At the age of only 24, he authored the hugely influential and authoritative The Condition of the Working Class in England.
The colour of Hunt’s story is all the things that critics cite out of context. “By his mid-twenties Engels was a well-versed Lothario whose silky good looks and raffish demeanour had earned him a string of lovers,” Hunt writes. He suffered from fits of depression and even glandular fever from overwork. As Hunt notes, Engels’ “Jekyll-and-Hyde double life” tested his endurance. And indeed, Engels was a colourful, yet brilliant character, between his late night drinking stints, bourgeois inclinations and womanizing.
Hunt’s penultimate chapter, First Fiddle, is perhaps the most fascinating, as a 70-year-old Engels paraded in protest on London’s streets with the British proletariat. After living a life of tremendous bourgeois privilege, Engels proves that he was, indeed, a frock-coated Communist.