The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, by Tristram Hunt, Allen Lane, 443pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0713998528
Shakespeare’s Macbeth shares a problem with Marx’s historical materialism. It is not a problem of particular significance, in that it has rarely bothered either Marxist activists or Shakespeare’s audiences. It is, all the same, an interesting matter, contributing to an understanding of Macbeth’s appeal and – of greater interest given the subject of this essay – suggesting a reason for the extraordinary impact of Marx and Engels’s political theories.
The witches predict that Macbeth will be king. As the successful warrior considers this amazing claim, he learns that another of the Weird Sisters’ prophecies has been fulfilled. They also foretold he would become Thane of Cawdor, and this rank he hears the king has awarded him, on learning that Macbeth had “unseamed” the traitor Macdonwald “from the nave to the chops”, and set his severed head upon the battlements.
So it is clear that the witches, hovering through the fog and filthy air, can read the future, and given that this is so, the logical course for Macbeth would be to sit back and await the crown. Fate, after all, has determined that the great prize will be his. Macbeth briefly considers this option, only to reject it. No plausible reason is given. The new Thane of Cawdor, the audience learns, does not wish to be the creature of a predetermined fate; he longs to be in control of his destiny; his every impulse rebels against passivity. Macbeth will determine his fate by doing whatever is necessary to make the witches’ prophecies come to pass and indeed to improve on them, thus making them his own and in the process establishing his freedom against forces natural and supernatural.
Turning to the question of historical materialism, we encounter something similar to the problem of fate in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Despite the many puzzling and even contradictory comments on the subject made by Marx and Engels, there are some clear and simple ideas at the heart of the concept. Under the terms of that great speculative explanation of human society and culture, history is seen as a progression, and the force driving it forward is economic development and in particular development in production methods. A further assertion of a more mystical sort declares that the path of history is predetermined, that its culmination in communism is inevitable. The question then arises: why not sit back and wait, with respect and humility, for the great entity that is history to complete its journey and deliver the coming, in the fullness and ripening of time, of communism, replete with its splendid cornucopia of freedoms and justice.
Whatever about the logic of the matter, in practice few Marxists, including Marx and Engels, found this ultra-rational approach attractive. Perhaps those – for the most part unloved – academic Marxists waiting patiently for the wheel of history to turn while enjoying a range of decidedly bourgeois comforts, are the only true Marxist fatalists. Political activists suspecting hypocrisy invariably dismiss such academic progressives, the reason being that radical politics, whether utopian or Marxist, is always a moral business. Fate and fatalism are ultimately incompatible with, and inhibiting of, morality. Fate is useful for radicals, whether peasants or proletarians, only in those long gaps between rebellions. Once rebellion is under way fate is what you make it.
Marx and Engels were moralists who, in a successful effort to modernise the Christian-derived tradition of popular egalitarianism, dressed up their utopianism with a romantic sophistication which involved a determining historical process, itself pre-determined to culminate in a general deliverance of mankind. Historical materialism embodied a mythology which was clearly derived from an earlier religious one, and this, indeed, is true of speculative romantic philosophy in general. As in the case of many earlier egalitarian radicals, the supposedly positive and pre-determined eventual fate of society, which lay at the heart of the Prussians’ modernising theories, was in conflict with their overarching moral impulses, which prompted immediate action. It was a conflict which they were to struggle with and dodge throughout their lives.
The late nineteenth century Russian Marxist Plekhanov was one of the few activists who allowed theory prevent his advocacy of a Marxist revolt by the people. He argued that, in the Marxist schema, Russia was insufficiently developed to support a genuinely socialist revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in the tradition of Engels’s 1848 engagement, brusquely dismissed such arguments in favour of revolution. In the late nineteenth century Marx was asked his opinion regarding revolution in Russia. In theory, of course, Russia was insufficiently developed to support a successful proletarian revolution, but in practice Marx could not disapprove of plans to overturn the massively unequal Tsarist world. Following his death, three different, lengthy and unsent draft responses to his Russian enquirers were found among his papers. Squaring the circle was not always easy. As the prospects for revolution in Western Europe receded with the passage of time, Engels also began to look towards the once dismissed Slavs as revolutionary saviours. In the preface to the second Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto both authors sanctioned revolution in feudal Russia. Later, Engels had second thoughts and restated the classic theoretical position. Tension between the desire to act and deference towards the historical process was their defining and perennial difficulty.
In the 1950s, when Beckett reminded his audiences of the emptiness and indignity at the heart of waiting, he was dramatising a long established truth. Waiting for fate was always a dull business, a denial of human nature worthy only of the emotionally and psychologically impaired, whether advocates of medieval orthodoxy or prisoners in the diminished world of pietism. Engels himself had, after a great emotional and intellectual struggle, rejected the overweening fatalism at the heart of Calvinism. He was hardly going to prioritise it in his own philosophy, or at least not consciously. Marx and Engels thought of themselves as modern men determined to leave the demeaning world of superstitious fate behind. So, in order to free themselves from the new scientific fate of historical materialism, they grafted on the ill-fitting concept of revolution. Revolution meant winning freedom and justice immediately. The doctrine of historical materialism would not be permitted to interfere with this ultimate desideratum.
Marxists often claimed that revolution helped the “wheel of history” to move forward, but insofar as this involved political action, it was an exercise in self-deception. In practice, for Marx, Engels and their European followers, support for revolution meant becoming enormously excited about episodes of social turmoil which invariably turned out to have nothing to do with bringing the proletariat to power.
The Marxist political and intellectual focus was always on Western Europe, which, in the nineteenth century, witnessed the bourgeoisie in its prime. This pair of German intellectual émigrés found it impossible to recognise that they lived in a time which could not reasonably be expected to witness a fundamental and total reordering of society in the interests of the industrial proletariat. A “logical” historical materialist would perhaps have done everything possible to advance the interests of the bourgeoisie in order to move history forward. But this was not the line taken by the German philosophers. Theirs was essentially a moral position. Like a very long line of people throughout history, they wanted the poor to triumph over the rich; they wanted justice; and they wanted it now. In all social revolts from the Chartist protests in England and the European eruptions of 1848 to the Paris commune and the early stirrings of a possible Russian revolution, they strained their analytical model to support the belief that the proletarian revolution was possible, if not at hand.
At the time of the national-bourgeois rebellions of 1848, Marx and Engels allowed themselves to believe that the hour of the workers had arrived. Engels, on horseback, galloped about southern Germany showing considerable personal courage, but to his acute disappointment discovered that the wretched bourgeoisie was not about to stand aside for the proletariat. The passion which drove him was the passion to right a wrong rather than a conviction that the technology of production throughout Germany was rendering the bourgeoisie historically redundant. He simply wished to see justice in the affairs of men.
Two years after 1848, with German events still on his mind, he wrote The Peasant War in Germany. There is no mistaking the sympathy Engels has for the cause of the exploited peasantry and for Thomas Müntzer, the former Lutheran seminarian at Hamlet’s old university in Wittenberg. Müntzer put up a good fight but was in the end defeated in 1525 and killed following protracted torture. Engels comments somewhat plaintively: “the worst thing that can befall the leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to assume power at a time when the movement is not yet ripe”. He does not, however, denounce the struggle as futile, pointing out that it was the historical role of the bourgeoisie, not the peasantry, to challenge feudal power. Emotionally, he was always on the side of the oppressed. Where old-fashioned right and wrong were involved, theory took a back seat.
One interesting aspect of the whole business is that the theory of historical materialism is far from nonsensical. If you leave out the communism element, the theory is plausible in a general sort of way. It’s just that, at the level of politics, it leaves very little room for individual activism. Nevertheless, it is far from inconceivable that at some time in the future technology will have advanced sufficiently to render capitalist competition redundant. However, it is far from clear what anybody can do to bring such a development closer other than living fully in the time in which one is born. And, of course, it is extremely unlikely that a post-capitalist world would be free from human unpleasantness. Indeed, it is quite possible that our proclivity for evil would find there a highly congenial environment.
Engels’s circumstances following the disappointments of 1848 were decidedly better than those of Müntzer in the sixteenth century. In an effort to avoid the attentions of the political police, he turned, in classic romantic style, for escape to the countryside, undertaking a walking tour in France. In the course of his journey, while contemplating the sublime magnificence of nature, he partook with pleasure of many gastronomic specialities and wines in the areas he visited. He was also acutely responsive to the young women he met en route. Being a good-looking young man, with money in his pocket and an easy conversational style, things went well for the future author of the feminist Origin of the Family. His principled egalitarianism did not entirely characterise the sexual aspect of his life; he had, it seems, bourgeois-influenced erotic preferences. As in politics, his predilections were expressed in analytical language. He stated a clear preference for “the cleanly-washed smoothly-combed, slimly-built Burgundian women” over “those earthily dirty, tousled, young Molossian buffaloes between the Seine and the Loire”. While he told Marx’s daughter that one of his pet hates was stuck-up bourgeois women, his aesthetics were essentially bourgeois and remained so throughout his life. If he was to reject women of his own class, it seems his preference was for women of the people who resembled their neat and well-turned out bourgeois sisters. No wild women please!
He also enjoyed French food and waxed lyrical about the wines: “… And what wine! What a diversity. From Bordeaux to Burgundy … from Petit Macon … to Chambertin … and from that to sparkling Champagne! With a few bottles one can experience every intermediate state from a Musard quadrille to the Marseillaise, from the exultation of the cancan to the tempestuous fever heat of revolution, and then finally with a bottle of Champagne one can again drift into the merriest carnival mood in the world.” It seems the Prussian youth could be removed more easily from bourgeois Germany than bourgeois Germany could be removed from the Prussian youth.
In his Bremen days the adolescent Engels was a rounded young man, affectionate, perceptive and intelligent. Born in 1820 the eldest son of a prosperous factory owner, he was raised in a loving Calvinist household. His father described the baby as “a healthy well-shapen boy” and prayed to the Lord to “grant us the wisdom to bring it up well and in fear of Him”. Tristram Hunt remarks that this prayer was “spectacularly unanswered” and quotes Marx’s daughter Eleanor as saying: “Probably no son born in such a family ever struck so entirely different a path from it.” This is true, and yet the evangelical shadow never entirely disappeared.
Engels’s spirit, energy and intelligence enabled him to reject the lure of family money. More importantly, he came to an instinctive understanding that his family’s philosophy was not only restrictive of the individual but also intellectually limiting and a fundamentally inadequate position from which to study or understand the extraordinary changes that came with industrialisation and which were transforming society and human relations beyond recognition. There was a conflict at the heart of his family’s activities; heavily involved in the transformative world of the industrial revolution, they had voluntarily bound themselves to a restrictive religious philosophy. At the heart of their creed was fear; fear of a terrible God who pre-ordained the fate of every individual, and which left its adherents but a small aperture from which to view the new world that was unfolding. The intellectually curious Engels struggled against these restrictions, slowly distancing himself from his family – with the exception of his mother – and finally cutting from the self-limiting pieties of Prussian Calvinism.
The evangelical world of Prussian pietism in which Engels grew up, with its tract societies, missionary societies and reformed manners, was similar to the world of Irish evangelicalism in the 1820s and 1830s. Both had their origins in the Protestant revivalist movement of the eighteenth century, which arose in opposition to increasingly rationalist tendencies within the reformed churches. This rationalism developed as the effects of the earlier scientific revolution, and in particular the effects of Newton’s work, spilled over into theology. One result was a Christian God removed from, and uninvolved in, day-to-day human affairs, quite similar to the Deists’ great clockmaker.
These developments were a recipe for the marginalisation of religion. Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a reaction against a view of the transcendent which offered so little support in daily life and which also appeared to leave the door open to the determined troops of the Counter-Reformation with their armoury of statues, interventions and miracles. It is hardly surprising that the revivalist movement, which was essentially the Protestant counter-Counter-Reformation, is said to have originated in Bohemia, where the beleaguered Protestant community was under pressure from the Habsburg Jesuits. In such circumstances a remote God, a technician of humanity, was not much use. What was needed was a Saviour who would save everyone who believed in Him and deal ruthlessly with the rest.
Revivalism embraced the radical theology of the seventeenth century and in particular that of Calvin. For those surrounded by enemies, or wishing to pursue a new form of living where traditional social supports were not available, Revivalism offered a vital anchor. The Prussian Wupper valley, where the Engels family factories, along with many others, poured forth their poison, and where despairing and drunken factory workers spat black from their broken bodies, was a centre of revivalist pietism.
At the religious coalface the message was emotional in the extreme, vital oxygen for both the rich and poor inhabitants of this industrialising German Hades. The young Engels recalled one preacher, a Dr Frederick William Krummacher:
He thrashes about in the pulpit, bends over all sides, bangs his fist on the edge, stamps like a cavalry horse and shouts so that the windows resound and the people in the street tremble … Then the congregation begins to sob; first the young girls weep; then the old women join in with a heart-rending soprano and the cacophony is completed by the wailing of the enfeebled drunken pietists … through all this uproar Kummacher’s powerful voice rings out pronouncing before the whole congregation innumerable sentences of damnation, or describing diabolical scenes.
As a youth he was an enthusiastic Evangelical. To celebrate his confirmation at sixteen years he wrote a poem on the key Calvinist topic of being selected by the Christ for salvation:
Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only son,
O step down from Thy heavenly throne
And save my soul for me.
Come down in all thy blessedness,
Light of Thy Father’s holiness,
Grant that I may choose Thee.
Among the Wupper valley establishment levity was frowned upon: all time was God’s time and was therefore devoted to business and family duties. Moreover, the diligence which brought worldly success was regarded, in this closed system, as a sign of having been chosen by God for eternal life. It was a business-friendly, as opposed to a philosophy-friendly, creed whose members contributed significantly to Prussian industrialisation. The new factory-laden Prussia was set to move from strength to strength through the nineteenth century, until its European and indeed American competitors became quite frightened of its productive power.
Like Ireland, Prussia experienced massive population growth from the mid-eighteenth century. Population in the future German nation state “rose from 16-18 million in 1750 to some 24 million at the turn of the century, to 33 million in 1850, 41 million in 1871, and finally to 67 million on the eve of the First World War”.1 The Prussian state had adopted an active policy of supporting industry and progressively embraced the principles of free trade, with very positive results. This attachment to trade was the common creed of the early nineteenth century bourgeoisie. The Catholic Irish bourgeoisie of the time was convinced that free trade and legislative autonomy would deliver sustained economic growth. Like the Prussians, they were enterprising and had access to a massive and extremely cheap workforce. But where the Prussians managed to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, the Irish foundered on the political question and thus population patterns, previously in lock-step, diverged radically from around 1850.
Much of the “surplus” Irish workforce emigrated to England, including the parents of Mary Burns, whom Tristram Hunt describes as Engels’s first great love. Marx’s daughter Eleanor described her as “… a very pretty, witty and altogether charming girl …”. Hunt believes that Mary was in domestic service rather than a factory hand as some have claimed, because Engels was most uncomplimentary regarding the attractions of the exploited female factory workers, complaining that they were all “… short, dumpy and badly formed”.
Engels, as a factory owner, could not simply set up house with Burns. Instead he maintained a double life in Manchester, attending society parties, riding to hounds – which he greatly enjoyed – and also spending a great deal of time with Mary in the home, situated in a working class area, which he financed. She was his guide through the underworld of the exploited proletariat of the city. Some evidence of his feeling for her can be gleaned from the considerable time he devoted to the quixotic exercise of attempting to prove that she was a descendant of the poet Robert Burns.
Initially Engels’s attitude towards the Irish was not particularly sympathetic. This was partly because of the influence of Thomas Carlyle’s racist opinions and because, apart from the Burns girls, his knowledge was confined to the desperate and debased Irish immigrants who had recently flooded into Manchester and who were bringing down the cost of labour and inhibiting working class organisation. Engels’s regard for Carlyle may have been related to his residual Prussian nationalism and perhaps to some of the extreme positions consistent with the principles of historical materialism. There was for example his theory of “unhistoric peoples”, which included Bretons, Gaels in Scotland, Basques and, of course, the old Prussian irritant the Slavs. Engels’s politics were for a time disfigured by the impact of Carlyle’s extremist rhetoric but, without mitigating their unpleasantness – which offered ideological succour to the great communist social engineers of the twentieth century – it can be acknowledged that these murderous sentiments did not characterise his overall politics.
The hostile attitude toward the presumably “unhistoric” Irish did not prevail for long. It seems Mary and her sister Lizzy, who later moved in, were both clear and passionate regarding the wrongs done to Ireland. Indeed, Lizzy is described by Engels as a “revolutionary Irishwoman”. It was not long following their acquaintance before Engels became convinced of the injustices England had committed in Ireland. Visiting the country in 1856, he was shocked at the evidence of recent calamitous events. “I never imagined famine could be so tangibly real…Whole villages are deserted…famine emigration and clearances between them have brought this about.” Engels later went on to write an unpublished history of Ireland in which he outlined what was to remain the basic claim of the Marxist understanding of the Irish situation: “Ireland may be regarded as the earliest English colony” and “the English citizen’s so-called freedom is based on oppression of the colonies”. As other leading Romantic thinkers had done, Engels was choosing diversity and pluralism over imperialism and universalism.
In 1867 the rescue of the Fenians Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy from a Manchester prison van occurred close to the house Engels shared with Lizzy (Mary Burns had died in 1863), who knew and was perhaps involved with the Manchester Fenians. Hunt, who refers to the rescue party as a “Fenian mob”, believes that some may have hidden later in the Engels safe house. Sergeant Charles Brett was killed in the struggle with the Fenians and his death led to retaliation which culminated in the conviction and hanging of three suspected Fenians. Engels predicted it would “transform the liberation of Kelly and Deasy into an act of heroism, such as now will be sung at the cradle of every Irish child in Ireland, England and America. The Irish women will see to that as surely as did the Polish womenfolk.”
Sympathetic as Marx and Engels were to the Irish cause, it could not be allowed to push other matters out of view. It seems, to the mild irritation of both Prussian sages, that the women in the Marx and Engels households went into collective mourning following the hangings. In a letter to Engels, Marx described his daughter’s response: “Jenny goes in black since the Manchester execution, and wears her Polish cross on a green ribbon.” “I need hardly tell you that black and green are the prevailing colours in my house too,” Engels replied, perhaps feeling he had had enough of Irish woes for the time being.
Following Mary’s death, Engels, in classic widower fashion, had become involved with Lizzy and they lived together until her death in 1878. When Engels finally, and with great delight, left Manchester, Lizzy moved with him to Regent’s Park Road in London. He cared for her attentively in her decline and when she requested on her deathbed that they be married in order to prepare her for the next life, the militant atheist readily complied. His motto after all was “take it easy”.
Perhaps, since Lizzy was not a Calvinist, and in light of the frequently positive romantic account of Catholicism, her request may have presented no great psychological problems. The young Engels’s departure from his parents’ creed, on the other hand, was an emotionally and intellectually charged process. His journey from pietism towards the wider world of romanticism started with his mother, among whose family were a number of intellectuals. One Christmas she gave her delighted son a volume of Goethe’s poetry. He was it seems, already reading romantic tales; his dismayed father reported to his mother that he had found a book on Friedrich’s desk concerning knights in the thirteenth century. His wife may have decided not to inform her husband of her “godless” gift to her son. “May God watch over his disposition, I am often fearful for this otherwise excellent boy,” sighed the worried father. The older Engels had accepted his own father’s dismal credo without demur. His son was to be different.
For Engels, Goethe was “the greatest of Germans” and as Hunt observes, it was from him that he learned what was to become one of his favourite terms of abuse: “A Philistine is an empty gut filled with fear who hopes that God will take pity on him.” But even as he was writing his pietistic lines, the young Friedrich was also composing verse on the myths of ancient Germania. He had already begun exploring the possibilities of the wider romantic current.
The young Engels’s period of reading Goethe coincided with the headlong retreat of Prussian intellectuals – Hegel excepted – from the values of universalism. The colonial aspect of the Napoleonic experience cured a great many Prussians of attachment to the blandishments of Enlightenment principle, particularly those emanating from France. Tristram Hunt gives a good account of German Romanticism but, as an Englishman exposed to the empiricist and anti-romantic consensus, which, since the late nineteenth century, has dominated British intellectual discourse, he tends to keep a certain distance. It would, of course never be easy for imperial nations, such as France or England, to incorporate the romantic in their dominant political discourses.
Hunt’s analysis at times seems to reflect the anti-romanticism which characterises the Anglo-Saxon tradition. He speaks casually of “invented tradition” which seems a little extreme when applied to the monumental scholarship of the Brothers Grimm, whom he describes dismissively as “fairy-tale aficionados”. Myth-making and invention are, of course, not the preserve of enthusiastic romantics and it seems the author may be erring in that direction himself when he describes Edmund Burke, the outstanding critic of the radical Enlightenment, as addressing his “fellow Englishmen”. The great student of the sublime and advocate of gradual organic progress was in many respects an early Romantic. He was, of course, also an Irishman whose family were victims of the larger island’s colonial activities and whose community in Ireland had learned through bitter experience that militant action against injustice carries no guarantee of success and can leave those who sought emancipation in a worse condition.
Burke famously criticised the French Revolution as a violent and untenable disruption of an order which had emerged from the multiple experiences and accretions of the past, under which mankind lived most successfully. He rejected the radical Enlightenment claim to understand mankind’s nature as a universal given, independent of historical heritage. In this sense he prefigured Hegel, who also placed the historical process at the heart of his philosophy. And Hegel, of course, greatly influenced Marx and Engels, whose politics of human transformation turned on the role of history.
The new wave of Romantic thinking which originated in Germany was in many respects a response to the failed paradise of the French Revolution. Initially, some saw the French Revolution as evidence that mankind, through an act of will, could take the necessary action to transform itself. In this sense the revolution appeared to confirm basic Enlightenment assumptions regarding human possibility; that armed with logic and an understanding of universal human characteristics, those with sufficient energy could redesign the entirety of the human social order. However, as possibility gave way to terror, despotism, international aggression and Napoleonic imperialism, the French experiment was widely seen as disappointing. Many of the early nineteenth century romantics who dwelt on this question concluded that the French experiment lacked subtlety.
Romanticism was in many respects the child of the Enlightenment, pursuing its possibilities through a rejection of earlier simplicities and through a committed investigation of life’s enormous complexity. This led romantic artists and thinkers in a variety of directions including, for some, an embrace of the medieval with its organic social relations, its aura of faith, mystery and authenticity. One such was Carlyle, who was hugely influential as a populariser of romantic values in Britain. Like Engels, he was a refugee from an ardent Calvinist family. Engels was initially impressed but like many others his approval moderated in the face of Carlyle’s extreme opinions. Carlyle, a Scot, was a British patriot and he attempted the difficult, if not impossible, task of reconciling romantic values with both a Whiggish version of history and underlying British political interests, which by the mid-nineteenth century were unequivocally imperial. Thus, unlike most romantic medievalists, he stopped short of endorsing the medieval church. He offered instead a British solution to a British problem by merging medievalism and the reformation in an essentially conflicting admixture. Lauding the truth and beauty of the pre-modern world, his declared heroes were Cromwell and Luther. He regarded black people as effectively sub-human and the Irish as deserving extermination. The great influence this eccentric commentator wielded is perhaps explained by the sheer force of his verbal personality and by his seeming to allow the British experience the excitements of romanticism without disrupting the state’s imperial framework. By the end of the nineteenth century this untenable ambition had been largely discarded.
If the romantic impulse led some towards medievalism, it led more sophisticated thinkers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hegel, Marx and Engels towards an investigation of the complexities of life and lived experience, which ranged well beyond the problematic certainties of Enlightenment reason. Their intellectual elaborations owed a considerable debt, of which some were more aware than others, to the long established patterns of western culture, and can be read as an effort to modernise older means of seeing and explaining life which in the post-Enlightenment era no longer appeared to work. There seems to have been a widespread acceptance among romantic intellectuals that a great modification in thinking was required to match the enormous social changes under way and that the concepts inherited from the Enlightenment were not adequate to the task. One element shared by many of these investigations, and not always consciously recognised, was the desire to preserve religious feeling while discarding both the idea of a personal Deity and belief in revelation.
Engels’s hero Goethe, with whom Carlyle corresponded, took an untroubled romantic line on religion. This son of a Lutheran minister explained that he incorporated Catholicism in his work because he found it more poetic. That does not mean, of course, that he accepted the claims of the Church of Rome, but merely that he enjoyed a religious sensation available in Catholic rites that the Lutheran Church could not provide. Romantic intellectuals rejected the facile dismissal of religion as delusion, but were not satisfied to simply re-embrace earlier religious forms. They sought a new religious experience through deeper thinking and reasoning.
The religious impulse was seen as a fundamental human attribute. Wordsworth claimed that even atheists must admit to having such feelings. This perspective was shared by Engels, who in classic romantic terms declared: “We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness.” The philosophy of the romantics, whether that of Hegel, Coleridge or Marx, was essentially spiritual. By elevating the Geist, Humanity or History to the status of a Deity, they appeared to offer a synthesis of faith and reason.
However, from the point of view of the individual believer, the result was weak. Lacking a transcendent dimension of any weight, the new Gods offered the struggling soul even less support than the harsh deity of the Calvinists. The limitations of romantic spirituality were part of a wider failure – outside the physical sciences – of the romantic project. And this failure was its legacy to the twentieth century, whose sanguinary politics owe less to romanticism than to its inability to form a bulwark against the diverse forms of aggression which were then to flourish.
Intellectuals who remained within the framework of traditional Christianity were not impressed by romanticism and the somewhat patronising attitude towards their faith which permeated early nineteenth century Europe. In February 1847, a writer in a Duffy’s Irish Catholic Magazine commented on the new thinking which had developed in opposition to the rationalism of the French philosophes:
But other doctrines have since gained ground, doctrines which had their root in Germany, and which agree with the French in rejecting revelation, but in almost nothing else. These Germans were revolted at the mean and false portrait of human nature drawn by the school of Voltaire. They felt there were heights and depths in man which no plummet of French philosophism had sounded. They acknowledged the mysteriousness of life, the greatness of enthusiasm and devotion, the majesty of duty, the sacredness of law. They are full of lofty and unworldly speculation; of Christianity they speak respectfully, reverentially even, as being one, and hitherto the best, of the transitory forms in which great truths took shape: Mahometanism being another of these forms. But what belief they propose to substitute for old Christianity … let no man ask, for no man we are sure will be able to answer … Thus the German philosophy though better, because less earthy and sensual, and because it at least excites the desire of celestial truth which it cannot gratify, is yet less consistent. The one lays plainly before you a barren desert as the sum of man’s hopes here and hereafter, the other deludes you with the fugitive semblance of the living waters. We will be pardoned these considerations for the sake of the sad fact, that these doctrines – a blank materialism or a shadowy, unmeaning spiritualism – are diffused through every vein of the present mind of Europe.(p4)
The greatest strength of romanticism was its recognition of the importance of history to an understanding of man and its challenge to the radical innocence at the heart of the Enlightenment. The age of reason not only discounted the contribution of history but, as part of that rejection, offered a uni-dimensional idea of man’s nature and needs. Typically, humankind, throughout the world and throughout the ages, had certain needs which were discernible through the application of reason. If self-serving feudal and religious enemies of rationality could be eliminated, it would be relatively simple to design a society to satisfy man’s needs and which would be equally valid at all times and in all places. It was not so much the end of history as that history was bunk. Hegel and the Romantics on the other hand were convinced that man could not operate independently of his history. And if history was important, then so too was politics. Hegel’s last political comment was on the British 1832 reform act which in his view – given the enormity of the changes brought with industrialisation – was insufficiently radical. Small wonder that Marx and Engels were willing to acknowledge his influence on their thinking.
Hegel, notwithstanding the caricature of his thinking offered by writers determined to blame him for Nazism and other horrors, advocated a complex and multi-faceted polity. The twentieth century critique of romanticism, which often focused on Hegel, found its most famous expression in the writings of Karl Popper and was also echoed, with greater sophistication, in some of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s writings. The approach of these critics is essentially teleological and the attitude, ironically, is ultimately deterministic. Seeing the intellectual endeavour of one era, as it attempts to struggle with its inherited questions of meaning, as somehow responsible for events over a century later is surely hugely simplistic. To put the shoe on the other foot, can we say that because some countries, whose governing ideologies can be traced to Enlightenment influences, have promoted a terrifying and blood-soaked international politics, based on the classic age of reason belief that one size fits all, it would be better if Kant and Hume had never existed?
Engels senior was worried by his son’s intellectual curiosity, which he rightly feared would lead him away from his own Christian values. He was also worried by his son’s teachers’ emphasis on German culture, myths and history. He therefore pulled the boy from school, denied him a university education and set him to work in the family mills. Needless to say this did not cure the youth, who began reading Shelley and identifying with the radical political ideas.
It seems that he was on the way to becoming a writer while working for the family business. In 1839 he wrote an epic play based on the life of a German folk hero. His earliest published work was The Bedouin, an orientalist poem on the subject of a proud and savage people undone by contact with European civilisation. Tristram Hunt suggests he was influenced by the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, who also lived in Bremen where Engels was now working. It seems more likely, however, that the ultimate if not the direct influence was Thomas Moore’s Lalla-Rookh, which was translated into German several times, influencing Goethe and numerous other writers and artists.
At nineteen Engels was happy to declare: “The Hegelian idea of God has already become mine, and thus I am joining the ranks of the ‘modern pantheists’”. Thereafter, he moved rapidly to embrace socialist politics, even impressing the Paris-based Marx who had originally dismissed him. Their friendship and collaboration grew from this period. Working by day in Manchester in “my old man’s factory” Engels developed his political thinking further while complaining bitterly about the work:
… huckstering is too beastly … most beastly of all is the fact of being, not only a bourgeois, but actually a manufacturer, a bourgeois who actively takes sides against the proletariat.
Poor Engels! The basis of his discomfort was, of course, entirely moral; he fears he is guilty of siding with and even becoming a bad person who oppresses the poor. Describing his time in Manchester he declared:
I forsook the company and the dinner parties, the port-wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure-hours almost exclusively to the intercourse with plain working men.
While Engels had extraordinary energy and an amazing work rate, there may be a little exaggeration in this claim. The man who told Jenny Marx his idea of happiness was Chateau Margaux 1848 – presumably some consolation for the poor revolutionary harvest of the same year – did not confine his leisure activities to those of the working people. Indeed the provincialism of the Lancashire bourgeoisie caused the sophisticated Prussian to complain: “For six months past I have not had a single opportunity to make use of my acknowledged gift for mixing a lobster salad – quelle horreur; it makes one quite rusty.” It has been speculated that it was at some social occasion in bourgeois Manchester that his eye fell on the handsome Mary Burns, employed in domestic service.
Within a few years and with Mary’s help, he completed his classic The Condition of the Working Class in England, a passionate indictment of the English bourgeoisie driven by deeply felt outrage and maturing socialist sensibility. Packed with official data, Condition describes the appalling exploitation of the mill-hands, the immigrant Irish, the miners, the men, women and children in the horrors of the industrialised midlands. Speaking of the recently arrived Irish – refugees from the collapsing culture and economy of the adjacent island – as opposed to the longer-established Irish elements, he described their degraded condition:
The cottages are old, dirty, and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts and in part without drains or pavement; masses of refuse, awful and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions … The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.
He was also aware of the way “these wild Milesians” were used by the factory owners to depress wages. But whoever worked in the factories was subject to heinous conditions with grave consequences:
Women made unfit for childbearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations wrecked, afflicted with disease and infirmity, purely to fill the purses of the bourgeoisie.
The younger generation spend the whole of Sunday lying in the street tossing coins or dog-fighting and go regularly to the gin palace … No wonder, then, that, as all witnesses testify, early, unbridled sexual intercourse, youthful prostitution, beginning with persons of 14-15 years, is extraordinarily frequent in Sheffield. Crimes of a savage and desperate sort are a common occurrence.
Whether this hell constituted the standard condition of the proletariat may perhaps be questioned. It certainly seems very different from the ordered and conformist culture of the 200,000 unemployed in receipt of relief during the Lancashire Cotton Famine fifteen years later. For Engels these conditions – however representative – confirmed his belief that capitalism was evil and validated his communism and his belief in social revolution. Throughout The Condition of the Working Class there is an emphasis on the historic role of the proletariat and on the idea of historical development.
The idea that mankind is moving forward towards delivery is clearly a mystical assertion, but what the modern reader might find even more difficult to accept is the belief, found in The Condition of the Working Class, that the most degraded debased and exploited elements in society would be the instruments of that delivery. After he departed the family home Engels kicked Calvinist fate out the door but he seems to have allowed it, in Manchester, to come back in the window embodied in the new deity History. In the seminal role attributed to the proletariat – destined to be first having been last – with its clear echo of the New Testament, we have the simultaneous rejection and embrace of his past. The last-becoming-first harks back to Christianity, not to the Calvinist form but to an early Christian idea of equality. As Marx maintained, the past weighs like a nightmare on the living.
The early friendship of Marx and Engels matured into a close bond and intellectual intimacy. “The two of us form a partnership together in which I spend my time on the theoretical and party side of the business,” Marx airily explained. One of Engels’s roles, apparently, was to supply the “moolah”, always in short supply in the Marx household, due in equal measure to the disinclination of its head to take paid employment and to an inability to manage money. The result was that Engels had to stay in Manchester chained to “accursed commerce”, while Marx struggled on with the disagreeable business of writing Das Kapital. The bond between the two was intense, and in Engels’s case seems almost to have provided a substitute for the inward-directed Calvinist family he had rejected.
While Evangelicalism could be highly political, it did not promote sociability; its adherents typically came together only to celebrate their isolation and address lonely pleadings to the Redeemer. The world of Victorian socialism, on the other hand, was a hive of activity at both a political and intellectual level, but even so it was not a hive that attracted Engels. Nothing enthused the former Calvinist so thoroughly as attacking and rejecting other socialists; given that he was armed with impressive theoretical tools and analytical abilities, sound Marxist reasons were never in short supply. But in the end this pattern seems to have issued more from a profound psychological commitment, born of his fundamentalist Protestant background, to the solitary path rather than to ideological scruple. As he put it to Marx: “How can people like us, who shun official appointments like the plague, fit into a ‘party’?”
The isolation was balanced by the pleasure they took in each other’s company. Whenever possible their meetings – wherein their enemies were excoriated and their shared ideology developed or perhaps merely tweaked – were conducted with the assistance of formidable quantities of alcohol. It seems they balanced their radical rejection of one people’s opium with their equally radical tolerance of another. Following one typical session in London, one or both of the intellectual émigrés formed the view that they should interfere with some public lighting on leaving the public house where their deliberations had taken place. This act, of what a Leninist might have termed petit bourgeois anarchy, resulted in them being pursued up the Tottenham Court Road by a uniformed representative of the state.
It might seem that Marx got the better part of the deal, but this is hardly the case. Engels managed to achieve something of a déclassé existence supported by a good bourgeois income. He did not burden himself with an expensive family and while he was exceptionally generous to Marx, he ensured throughout his life that he also was able to live very comfortably. Marx on the other hand got himself into a very tricky situation. He fell in love and married the daughter of a German aristocrat – his father-in law was actually the first to introduce him to socialist writing. He went on to have a family and moved to London with little means of support, slipping into the misery of genteel poverty. (It is clear, however that the permanent scarcity which afflicted the family might have been avoided had the author of Das Kapital, or his wife, understood the basic principles of domestic budgeting.)
Marx would go to great lengths – short of actually taking a job – to raise funds, and on one occasion packed his much loved wife off to Germany to plead for support from her wealthy relations. When they were first married, it seems Jenny’s mother had more or less “given” them a servant, Helene Lenchen Demuth, as a wedding present. Lenchen stayed with the family throughout the long thin years and following the deaths of Karl and Jenny she took up employment with Engels, contributing over a number of years to the enormous task of sorting Marx’s papers. It appears that while Jenny was in Germany seeking funds, the lonely Karl sought comfort with the 27-year-old Lenchen, who became pregnant. Jenny had to deal with this situation when she returned from her difficult mission. Interestingly, on the issue of infidelity she took the broader view and does not appear to have blamed either party for what she seems to have regarded as a natural lapse. The problem that arose for the family was the decidedly bourgeois one of keeping up appearances and the effect of an illegitimate child on the marriage prospects of the Marx girls, which were already quite constrained. Jenny and Karl had reason to be grateful to Engels for saving the day. He selflessly offered a solution to this sensitive problem by accepting paternity of Lenchen’s child. Engels’s emotional engagement with Marx and his family, to whom he was “Uncle Friedrich”, made this selfless act possible. His easygoing manner and pragmatism may also have helped.
Marx did not enjoy writing Das Kapital and spent a great deal of energy avoiding the task. Despite decades of work he only completed one volume in a projected multi-volume work. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that he came to view the enterprise as less significant than the iconic status given it by twentieth century communists and sympathisers would suggest. Engels had the easier role; he was able to pursue various intellectual and political interests, whereas Marx was required to devote endless time to the scientific characterisation of capitalism, which he seems to have found hugely boring and perhaps more mercurial than he originally thought.
In their examination and pursuit of spirituality, romantic philosophers and artists ultimately failed to discover a new clarity through sophisticated reasoning and explorations. Marx and Engels also failed to render human civilisation fully explicable through their sophisticated investigations. Marx’s reluctance to complete Das Kapital suggests a dawning realisation that full certainty was impossible, even in this closely defined area. At his graveside Engels referred to both Newton and Darwin. Newton can be said to have initiated the age of reason, whereas Darwin, in the extraordinary completion and complexity of his evolutionary theories – which have formed the basis of all biological sciences since – achieved the apotheosis of romantic ambition, an ambition which, it transpired, could never be realised outside the limited world of the physical sciences.
While the limitations of historical materialism are clear and while it is also clear that in their politics neither Marx nor Engels consistently adhered to its principles, it is also the case that without this concept they would have simply been the latest in a long line of ahistorical moralisers and their influence in the nineteenth century and beyond would have been minimal.
They offered a modern version of the eternal dream of Eden restored in a world where earlier versions of the dream were no longer credible. The socially disruptive effects of industrial capitalism and the enormous disparities of wealth displayed in the new cities ensured that the hunger for social equality would not wane. In this new world Marxism was to give this age-old hunger its most compelling form. Social democracy was the only plausible egalitarian alternative to Marxism in Europe. Arguably, it only exists as a major force in Europe today because, in the end, political Marxism could not work. Social democracy is a modest business, confined to the project of modest amelioration. Despite its decided usefulness, it does not particularly excite. In particular it does not excite those in tune with the ancient millenarian impulse that aspires, not to partial amelioration but to total transformation. It also has what could be described as inherent, and politically humiliating, structural deficiencies. Typically, its practitioners are separated from the key human activity of organising the production of wealth, upon which life and civilisation depend. This activity is delegated to others. Social democracy, by virtue of its limited agenda, therefore involves an implicit validation of capitalism and perhaps even of social inequality. Social democrats either remain on the periphery – whether in government or not – attending to redistributive detail or, like Tony Blair and New Labour, engage in a form of political suicide by becoming more capitalist than the capitalists themselves – not an attractive prospect for those burning with a sense of injustice.
For many of these, the grand road of Marxism was more attractive and infinitely more satisfying psychologically. Perhaps it is a pity it could never work and that its real world failures have left those who experience a passion for, or even an interest in, economic justice without a credible language of protest or framework of analysis. The politics developed by Marx and Engels overcame the danger of peripheralisation by positing an entirely new form of economic organisation, one centrally controlled by the workers with no room for capitalists, traders or hucksters. It is not difficult to understand the transformative appeal of this dream to the many motivated by the desire to end injustice once and for all and not wishing to be at the margins of life. The key element in the theories of Marx and Engels, which allowed for such a grand vision, was faith that capitalism must end before long and that it must inevitably be replaced by a communist economy. It was this modern version of an older popular idea of what fate promised and the willingness to take control of that fate through revolutionary action that created a politics which would move countless thousands over a century and a half. Marx and Engels more or less gave the go-ahead for their theories to be applied in Russia, which was to be the first country to attempt a planned and centralised economy. Their motivation was to end injustice, but in so doing they unwittingly summoned forth VI Lenin, said to have been the only boy in his class who didn’t write poetry and who turned out to be the first great post-romantic. Lenin sensed the weakness of romanticism and turned against its endless complexity and sophistication. He harked back to the Age of Reason, to a world without diversity and to identification with Robespierre’s dictum “I am the nation.” Once again History was bunk, the individual was insignificant and society was a blank canvas with which those in power might do as they wished. And that is what happened. Those who did not appreciate the self-evident validity of the Bolshevik blueprint were met with the violence recorded by poet Anna Akhmatova:
Stars of death stood over us
As innocent Russia squirmed
Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
Of the black marias.
Like Macbeth, Lenin engineered a coup. But they were different. Macbeth was a proto-romantic, Lenin a calculating Robespierre. To find some echo of the great Russian experiment in the works of Marx and Engels’s favourite author, we must turn from Shakespeare’s heroes to the most chilling and calculating of all his creations, to Iago and his exultant cry:
I have’t, it is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.
All quotations are from The Frock-Coated Communist, apart from the verse and those quotations identified by endnote or within the text.
Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.