Town Planner?

Miles Taylor

  • The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt
    Allen Lane, 442 pp, £25.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9852 8
  • The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels
    Penguin, 307 pp, £10.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 14 119110 2

The best of friends started as the closest of rivals. When Marx first met Engels in 1842 he immediately disliked his theology, his military uniform and the company he kept in the beerhalls of Berlin. Within a couple of years the two were housemates in Paris, co-authoring and co-conspiring their way towards The Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the revolutionary barricades of that momentous year. Over a lifetime, Engels’s devotion to Marx makes Boswell’s acquaintance with Johnson look quite casual. Gofer, editor, agent, translator and financial provider, Engels even stood in as a parent when Marx fathered a child by his maid. Without Engels, Marx would have had no income, and the world would have been deprived of Das Kapital.

Posterity has tended to prise them apart. Under Soviet Communism Marx was given a new partner – Lenin – while Engels was allocated Darwin. Later, the men of the European New Left fell for the younger Marx, as his early philosophical writings became available, leaving the mature Engels – and his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – to be taken in by feminists, until they read his views on marriage and realised he was taking them in as well. Today, as capitalism stumbles, Marx is back as a prophet for our troubled times. Engels, however, has remained on the shelf. Is the moment ripe for a reunion?

Tristram Hunt clearly thinks so. He has restored colour, lights and action to Engels’s life much as Francis Wheen did in his makeover of Marx ten years ago. The Frock-Coated Communist is highly readable and mostly reliable. Engels’s previous biographers – principally Gustav Mayer (who knew his contemporaries) and Terrell Carver – were unable to separate him out from the history of Marxism and the politics of the International Workingmen’s Association. Hunt liberates his subject from the prehistory of Communism. He gives us an absorbing narrative of the life, writings and affairs of a good-hearted bon viveur, perpetually caught between the piety and propriety of his upbringing, and the edgy excitement of the 19th-century metropolis.

Born into a close-knit and wealthy industrial Rhineland family, by his late teens Engels had turned rebel. Bitten by the radical Romanticism of poets such as Heinrich Heine, he turned on his father and on his father’s business, writing a damning account of the terrible conditions in the Wuppertal valley. His father packed him off to Berlin for military service, only for Engels to fall among a pack of students who worshipped Hegel by day and Bacchus by night. Like Marx, Engels came under the spell of Moses Hess and Ludwig Feuerbach, and at the bottom of his glass found a secular communist philosophy. Engels père then made a big mistake, sending his son to England to be trained in the family business at their mill in Salford. As Hunt shows, this was the turning point in Engels’s revolutionary road. In Manchester, he found evidence that the dehumanising environment of industrialisation was creating a race apart, and he mixed with local Chartists, who spoke and dressed like a new proletarian vanguard. Engels returned to Germany a much better businessman, and a polished renegade. The Condition of the Working Class in England followed in 1845. He moved to Paris, moved in with Marx, and when he wasn’t pursuing women, began to chase the dragon’s tail of revolution in the French capital, in Brussels and back in southern Germany. Engels returned to the Rhineland and led an armed rising in his home town of Eberfeld, where, legend has it, he was confronted by his father on the barricade.

In the second half of his biography Hunt turns to the long years of Engels’s exile in England. For 20 years he saw out his filial dues and worked for Ermen & Engels in Salford, becoming a partner in 1864, after his father had died. He continued to write (mainly on military matters), rode with the Cheshire Hounds, joined the local Schiller Institute and settled down to an unusual living arrangement with two local Irishwomen (Mary Burns, his lover of many years, and her sister, Lizzy), who were lodged half a mile away from his house in Rusholme. Unlike many other mid-Victorian visitors from the Continent – Italians like Antonio Panizzi, James Lacaita, even Mazzini; or Frenchmen such as Louis Blanc and Hippolyte Taine – German exiles tended to stay away from their hosts. Engels was no exception. Both in Manchester, and then in Primrose Hill, where he moved in 1869, he was the epicentre of German émigré politics, yet until Marx’s daughter Eleanor married into English socialism, he remained aloof from the radicals on his doorstep.

Hunt calculates that Engels gave over more than half his annual income to support Marx and his family. When he was living in London he visited the increasingly grouchy Marx every day, and after Marx died in 1883 went on supporting his remaining children (including Freddy Demuth; Engels revealed that he was Marx’s son only on his deathbed) and his domestic staff, and continued shepherding his unpublished works into print. Was he working out his animus against his father by diverting the bulk of his income and inheritance to Marx? ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’: it summed up their friendship perfectly.

Marx’s death was, in its own way, a release for Engels. He ensured that Das Kapital was completed and translated, and some of his own most influential work dates from the 1880s. He took an active role in reshaping the programme of the German Social Democratic Party, visited the US, and showed a lively interest in the revival of socialism in the East End of London. At his death in 1895 he commanded the reverence later generations reserved for Marx: the remnants of the First International gathered to pay their respects at his funeral. In his will he made ample provision for everyone in his extended political and family circles, and in a final act of exorcism, bequeathed to his younger brother an oil painting of their father.

There aren’t many discoveries in The Frock-Coated Communist. Hunt has had less success than Wheen and other recent biographers of Marx in finding new material from the Prussian censors, the British census or the Soviet archives. At times his prose is too lively, especially when Engels’s libido is involved. Elsewhere, as if to compensate, we are given too much of a lecture tour of the intellectual hinterland through which Engels had to move to get from God to Hegel, and then from Hegel to Marx. Socialism proves less of a trudge than religion. Free love (Fourier), free healthcare (the German Social Democrats) and free-for-all (Bakunin) are surveyed more succinctly, though with the special pleading that Engels was cleverer than half his contemporaries and better-looking than them all.

Hunt is an interesting choice as Engels’s biographer. No other historian waved the flag quite as vigorously during the Cool Britannia era of New Labour. Almost uniquely among media dons, Hunt started out on television, then moved to radio and into the broadsheet opinion columns. He has argued passionately for embedding a progressive version of British history in the school curriculum, in museums and galleries, and over the airwaves: from the English Civil War to the Victorian town hall and onto the green belt, from Newton to Darwin, the Levellers to the Labour Party. Past history became present politics as he campaigned for New Labour, joined its think-tanks and sought (as yet in vain) a safe parliamentary seat. Sometimes his judgment has erred. Comparing Oliver Cromwell to the Taliban was not astute. Mostly, however, his cheerful storytelling offered a welcome relief from the heritage diet of Henry VIII, Hitler and Winston Churchill.

Unlike his fellow broadcasters, Hunt wears his politics on his sleeve. Although there are few traces now of the spirit of 1997, two refrains persist. One is the call for a moral base to politics: the idea that the liberal left in this country are the heirs to a great tradition of Protestant consciousness. Sometimes this takes the form of protest, at others the pursuit of profit, but never the naked individualism of the anarchist or class warrior, nor of the Gradgrinding capitalist. The English genius, as he describes it, is for hard work and fair play, and just deserts to all: an ideology of inclusion, compassion and care. Hunt has also banged the drum for a new civic awareness. Taking a lead from the Victorians, whose vision he championed in Building Jerusalem (2004), he has urged city councils, philanthropists, Whitehall and Westminster to embrace rational urban living as a starting point for a more communal political life.

Inevitably then, The Frock-Coated Communist is also a commentary on the present. Hunt has coupled his biography with a new edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels’s indictment of early English capitalism rings as true now as it did then. Exploitation of the working class has migrated from First World to Third, and Hunt finds striking parallels between the factory conditions described by Engels and the sweatshops and forced labour of modern South-East Asia. Early Victorian Manchester, with its untreated sewage, haphazard alleys, beershops and jerry-built back-to-backs, is a foretaste of the dystopian megacity of the late 20th century, from Bombay to Nairobi (European and Latin American shanty-sprawls are not mentioned by Hunt), of man making his own environment but not in a manner of his own choosing. Hunt argues that Engels shouldn’t be seen as an angry German version of Mrs Gaskell, but rather as a visionary town planner, pining for the new civic culture to come: of suburbs, affordable housing, public parks, piped water and gas, shopping arcades and philanthropic munificence. And so, refashioned by Hunt, Engels is reconciled with Marx for our present age. Marx reminds us of a world where global capitalism was inherently unstable and crises of credit frequent (or at least decennial – Marx predicted slumps rather as a gambler spreads bets, so was bound to be right eventually). Engels points us to the moral vacuum at the heart of the modern urban experience.

This is a very English account of The Condition of the Working Class in England, a book that was never intended for an English audience. It wasn’t translated until 1886, and even then only for the American market; it didn’t appear in this country until 1892. Engels’s commentary is littered with special asides and explanations for German readers, and although he dedicates the work to the English working class, he does so with apologies for his German tongue and tone. Nor was the book, as Hunt implies, mainly about Manchester, although Engels knew Manchester best. Just one-tenth of the text deals with living and working conditions in the city. Elsewhere, he ranges freely around the UK. All the major cities are included, as are rural areas and mining districts. Not that he had travelled very widely: he went where the official ‘blue books’ and concerned commentary of the early 1840s had already been. And he reproduced much of the racial and social prejudice of his fellow observers, finding savagery in Sheffield, child abuse in Willenhall (the location of Disraeli’s ‘Wodgate’ in Sybil), and lazy Irish everywhere. Like other foreign visitors to this country in those years, and like countless writers before him, he was using the condition of England to say something about the condition of his own country. His depiction of urban despair was a warning to his fellow Germans of what might follow if they did not heed the signs of unrest in Silesia and Bohemia.

Hunt catches some but not all of the German elements in Engels’s German ideology. He misses the virulent Anglophobia of the attack on the English middle classes, who are variously described as enfeebled, egotistic, narrow-minded, selfish and sluggish. As though feeling for cranial bumps, Engels concludes at one point that selfishness is the ‘predominant trait’ of the English bourgeois, who has ‘concentrated all his emotional power upon the single point of greed for money’. Citing Scottish witnesses – there are long extracts from Archibald Alison and choice remarks from Carlyle – Engels heaps abuse on the English entrepreneur, who is giving the middle class such a bad name. In what he called a ‘well-ordered state of society’ – presumably he is thinking of Germany – reckless competition wouldn’t be allowed. There are hints of Hegel here: of markets tempered by the neighbourly ethos of towns, of corporations and guilds ensuring that private vices lend themselves to public benefit. In England, the middle classes, for so long the last great hope of the Enlightenment, had been altered irrevocably by commerce, but in Germany there was still time.

And what of the workers? Engels thought that the English working classes were worse off than Prussian peasants, worse off even than those under serfdom east of the Elbe. In the lecture notes of another Berlin professor – Barthold Georg Niebuhr, the historian of ancient Rome – he found a novel term to describe the English patient: ‘proletariat’, a Latin word which didn’t require further explanation. Or did it? Engels understood ‘proletariat’ to mean the class of Roman that was propertyless and therefore had to barter its only possession – its labour – in order to survive. And so the Victorian pauper became the modern dehumanised prole, enjoying bread but precious few circuses, and ripe for revolt. Engels should have been a more attentive student. Even the proletariat of Rome were considered citizens, and citizens have rights, which in most countries since 1789 have been enshrined in laws. But Engels, who combined a romantic compassion for the poor with a violent vision of their revolutionary potential, never bothered much with rules and regulations.