‘The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels’ reviewed by Terrell Carver

Reviewed by Terrell Carver

About the reviewer

Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol. He has published very …


This is a difficult book to review in that I don’t know whether I’m reviewing the author or the genre. The genre is not intellectual biography, which is what you might expect, and of which there are numerous best- or steady-selling distinguished examples. I can think of Skidelsky on Keynes, Desmond and Moore on Darwin, Lee on Woolf, … there are a lot. This book is a ‘popular’ biography, as was Wheen on Marx, more like the lives of celebrities and politicians that crowd the shelves at Christmas than like the books I’ve just mentioned – except that Engels isn’t a ‘celeb’, or at least not yet. Hunt’s work is thus in a kind of cross-over mode: the discourse is bio-lite, as I shall illustrate below, but the subject isn’t well known in the mass market, and indeed the point of the book is to sell books by creating something of a reputation. Wheen won the Isaac Deutscher prize (at which I am appalled) and sold zillions in paperback, I assume; this book is clearly intended to be in that mould. It is also said that Wheen wrote his book on a bet; Hunt’s motivation isn’t revealed in the book and hasn’t been through the rumour-mill, at least to my knowledge.

In my opinion one significant factor driving these two authors’ projects is that ‘lives’ of Marx and Engels are now easy to write. The English-language Collected Works (the largest edition of ‘readable’ Marx-Engels texts in any language, including German) includes vast amounts of colourful correspondence, tailor-made for the chatty biography. There is also a large secondary literature in English, dating back to Isaiah Berlin’s early intellectual biography Karl Marx (1939), which – though highly readable – was decidedly intellectual and not in the current ‘popular’ mode. Paradoxically perhaps, Berlin’s book was first published in the ‘Home University Library’ series and was intended for popular consumption, a job which it did – and still does – very admirably. The current OUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ series is conceived in this way, shorn to an extent of the ancient university and All Souls elitism of the 1930s, or even the ‘Past Masters’ authority of the 1960s and 1970s, but nonetheless recognisably educative in intent, not merely readable but literate, and notably serious.

What divides this genre from the work of Wheen and Hunt is their common strategy of ‘humanisation’ and focus on ‘life’, rather than works and ideas. Wheen and Hunt are not partners in any sense that I know of, but the books are remarkably similar in a number of crucial ways. It should be noted that, as I explained above, I am not objecting at all to what’s popular or even popularising (if carefully handled), but rather to much of the content and in particular the tone of the two recent biographies. The tone – in my blunt and no doubt ‘academic’ judgement – is relentlessly trivial and trivialising, scornful and dismissive, anything-for-a-laugh and hypocritically judgmental. Or in other words, I find that – I’ll deal here with Hunt on Engels, but I had the same reaction to Wheen on Marx – the subject can’t win. Say, if Engels had thrown over his job and rich family connections and lived in proletarian solidarity with the workers, he would have been derided as a phoney. Whereas, given that he was a millowner and amassed considerable wealth, had tastes for champagne and fox-hunting, and thus led a ‘double life’ supporting communism, then he is up for considerable derision. I could go through the text clocking up the points where the biographer appeals to the reader’s (supposed) sense of humour and shallow avoidance of the inverse, but that merely reproduces the relentless drip-drip-drip of trivialisation, which I found worse than annoying after a while.

Perhaps more seriously – given that Hunt is an academic historian – the hypocrisy that drives the trivialisation arises in his general approach to 19th century society and politics. Engels’s wine and beer consumption (and bills) are a constant theme (and indeed a function of an easily accessible archive and record), but then more thoughtful recourse to historical works on 19th century culture and alcohol (and other drugs) would easily show that most people drank a lot and dabbled in dope, at the very least. Yet this context is not provided in Hunt’s work; rather the reader is invited to be appalled at this ‘excess’, given current – and indeed very recent – government warnings and health scares. Popular consciousness about these things has been substantially altered even in my living memory.

Much the same applies to racist discourse and easy attributions of racism. Hunt does pause and consider this issue in relation to Engels’s casual writing and indeed substantial texts, yet he doesn’t engage in any serious way with the prior question as one must: what is it now, and what was it then, to be racist? And what – then and now – counts as racist language? These are not easy questions to answer, but at least they could be mentioned, and the narrative could pause – just a bit – to alert the reader that something other than a snap judgement and moral flush of superiority might be in order. So instead of being genuinely thoughtful, Hunt’s discussion is really a rehearsal of the question: ‘How racist was Engels?’ given a set of unexamined anti-racist assumptions taken to be common amongst ‘us’, i.e. Hunt and his presumed readers. Much the same applies to what is known of Engels’s sex life, opinions on homosexuality, diverse views on ‘women’, and similar matters. Along the way Hunt gives little attention to the detailed context of any such remarks, in so far as they appear in the record.

This – I am sorry to say – is to some extent a result of having available the Collected Works edition. Everything gets evened out as a text and – introductions and vast footnoting notwithstanding – everything in print looks like everything else in print on the page. The volumes are easily searchable because they are excellently indexed, and quotable quotes are not hard to find. And in Hunt’s hands, they are all taken very much at face value. Face value here means written for ‘us’ to read, in our own context, and for our amusement, without any unsettling thoughts. I am not objecting to the edition, or to the idea of having editions in legible type (rather than facsimile reproduction), but rather to Hunt’s limited and tendentious use – and non-use – of contextualising facts and plausible suppositions. Even generosity of spirit wouldn’t come amiss in a biographer.

Political change gets much the same treatment. While Hunt writes at times quite movingly of the horrors of industrialisation, his view of the struggles to mitigate this nightmare is, again, quite unhistorical. The trivialising judgement that Hunt operates requires a stable and unexamined point of view from which to get the laugh: because things turned out historically as they did (from where ‘we’ think we are today), working class revolution was never on the cards, and socialist politics was always more than faintly ridiculous, whether reformist or revolutionary. May Day rallies and marches are quite well described by Hunt, but then he trivialises them as good days out for the working classes who are – magically – becoming better off. Of course these later 19th century rallies were only possible after they had become legal and tolerated – the 1840s were rather different. But then that, too, seems to have happened by magic, rather than through the revolutions of 1848, which Hunt portrays as risible failures. Marx and Engels are repeatedly described in snotty terms as backroom manipulators and spiteful ‘splitters’; but then I wondered how, say, Churchill – both a loner and an opportunist – would look if Hunt were to apply the same judgemental criteria to him. How else do people behave when they do politics? Hunt attributes this behaviour to the left as some kind of peculiarity, but this is just tossed off as a truism. No doubt a serious historian could put up this kind of case, and heaven knows enough have done so, despite the obvious fact – to me, anyway – that rightwing politics is hardly immune from this kind of thing. What seems unforgivable here is that Hunt seems unable to sustain an argument one way or another, even a short one. But then, in my view, that is what makes this biography a ‘popular’ one and à la mode today. It’s YouTube and Facebook – the quick laugh, the banal update.

It may seem harsh to view the book that way. Surely there is something new in it? Something thoughtful and interesting? Some unexpected angle on Engels, Marx, Marxism, socialism – anything? I am not one to fetishize the archive or require a revelation, even if only some recondite new fact, whether it alters a little or a lot. Yet Hunt’s Acknowledgements indicate quite a number of archival visits and credits to colleagues and staff. I have no doubt that this is a true record of his trips, but my verdict on this is that the trails to these archives are already well worn and well marked in the literature, and there was almost nothing cited that I hadn’t read about before, or indeed simply read: many of the quoted items that look as if they arise from hard-graft research are – one learns from truthful footnoting – quoted in books published long ago. Hunt’s book is thus curiously both better and worse than Wheen’s. The latter did not pretend to that much serious scholarship amongst the historians (Wheen is a journalist), whereas Hunt’s book is decorated with an academic apparatus that is mostly there for show, and thus functions to make his trivialisations look respectable.

I am fascinated with the way that Hunt can take a promising idea and turn it round to triviality. The biographical narrative is actually framed with his visit to the little-known city of Engels, the ‘unloved’ sister town of Saratov, in Russia. He makes observations there on the decayed tradition of Friedrich Engels as a figure in popular political culture, and the gradual subsidence of his memorialisations into the eponymous landscape. However, this kind of thing is really the prologue to what could have been an interesting study of contemporary Russia, where ‘Engels’ as he is – and was – could have functioned as a set of contrasting metaphors: 19th, 20th, 21st century ‘Engels’. However, that would not have been a study of Engels himself, as Hunt cheerfully admits. Indeed he specifically rejects the idea that Engels was somehow to blame in any sense for the crimes and follies of the Soviet era; he is of course presuming that there is nothing at all legitimate and praiseworthy about the Soviet Union, without having to open any discussion on this point. But why then the further and constant invocation of Soviet and Eastern Bloc kitsch commemorating Engels and Marx that occurs throughout the text? As kitsch it gets the easy laugh; the laugh is on Engels, and on those who took (or take?) him seriously, in some sense. This is really tabloid trivialisation.

It gets worse. There are, of course, numerous studies that work hard to blame Engels for the kitsch and crimes of Soviet Marxism, and in aid of this to make sure that readers see Marx’s work in this way. In particular, to do this it is then important to see Marx’s work in the light of Engels’s later – even posthumous – works, notably the Dialectics of Nature, and ultimately works Engels didn’t write at all, or at least not directly. Stalin’s Short Course, and similar primers on dialectical materialism – from this perspective – are the reductio of what Marx was all about, and Engels was just the same. Rather oddly – given other passages that decouple Engels from Stalinist and Cold War Marxism – Hunt buys into this view enthusiastically. Moreover it is difficult to see the reason for this, at first, given that Hunt seems to have no political axe to grind, and indeed – in the post-1989 world – it would be difficult to see exactly what political battle he would be fighting. However, it is possible that the drive to trivialise is at work here once again. Hunt’s view of the dialectic is of course that it is central to this sad history, that history in this case is safely reduced to a history of ideas, and that the ideas in question arose in Hegel, were appropriated by Marx and rose again with Engels’s Marxism. This is quite a simple narrative that positions itself against the unimaginable complexities of Hegelian philosophising, where no reader would want to go. It relies on simplicities of sameness, when Hunt actually gets down to texts.

Here we have one of the few genuine mistakes in the book, namely Hunt locates Marx’s version of the dialectic in The Poverty of Philosophy, finding the simplest and most risible treatment imaginable. This is just the thing to show the continuities Hunt claims: Marx’s early text of 1847 is just as bad as the rough notes in the Dialectics of Nature (1925). Because dialectic is so crucial, we are told, to understanding the intellectual and political history of so many great events of the 20th century – it must follow that Stalin, Engels and Marx all understood it in this particularly crude way. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis leaps off Hunt’s page, not once, but twice (53, 287), just as Marx wrote it. What Hunt has missed, of course, is that those lines by Marx are his parody of Proudhon’s version of Hegel’s dialectic; Marx’s satire was there on the page to mock a risible version of Hegel cooked up in Proudhon. Hunt reads Marx straight off the page as if he were the comic book version Marx for Dummies.

The nadir for me (dear reader … if you have persevered this far) is that Hunt is actually quite well informed about two scholarly issues to do with Engels. One is the question of the Marx-Engels relationship, not in the sense of lived experience (on which Hunt is fairly reasonable, if quite superficial and unsurprising), but rather on the way that a preconceived view about their ‘agreement’ has been, and still is, very commonly used to defend the practice of quoting one as the other, one in preference to the other, and one instead of the other – generally Engels for Marx, and very seldom the reverse. Hunt lists a goodly range of academic sources where these issues and have been raised and debated, and conclusions drawn both ways. On a smaller scale, and on a lesser issue – that of Marx’s alleged paternity of Frederick Lewis Demuth, son of Helene Demuth, the Marx family housemaid – Hunt also notes that there has been some controversy, and that sources and scholars have gone both ways. But in both these cases, Hunt dismisses the debates, the issues and the scholars and simply declares that – undeniably – Marx and Engels agreed (and can thus be read as each other on important questions) and that Marx was the father of ‘Freddy’ Demuth (no question about it).

There is more than a hint of suggestion in Hunt’s text that scholarly investigation and debate are trivial activities, probably obscuring plain, simple truths, rather than opening up anything interesting for the reader, even if briefly, or even for further reading. I am tempted to say that this is like Fox News, closing down questions and shouting simplicities, but then Fox News isn’t trying to be funny. Perhaps Hunt’s work here is more like the ‘Daily Show’, but the other way round. Laughs on the ‘Daily Show’, quick as they are, are supposed to provoke thoughtfulness. Smirking over Marx’s alleged simple mindedness as a philosopher, and bad-luck sexual proclivities in his home life, isn’t really thought-provoking. Or so I feel after reading Hunt’s accounts.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning two other misreadings, bizarre as they are. Hunt takes Marx’s satirical comment in Capital, vol. 1 – that in its language Darwin’s evolutionary theory mirrors the bourgeois ideology of competition in the marketplace – to be an endorsement of the idea that nature and society are the same, and that materialist science shows us that this is so. Even more strangely, he takes Engels – who launched the Marx-Darwin comparison at Marx’s graveside – to be sceptical of this supposed parallelism between nature and society. Yet Hunt spells out Engels’s (in)famous three laws of dialectics in Engels’s own terms, which are those of the physical sciences, based on matter-in-motion, claiming that Marx endorsed this, too, whereas the connection between evolutionary biology and the materialism of the physical sciences is far from obvious, and indeed still up in the air. The clue to this farrago, I think, lies in Hunt’s citation of Darwin’s comment that a ‘Germanic’ connection between socialism and evolution through the natural sciences is foolish; the non-contextualised Darwin paraphrase/quotation comes from a published secondary source (285-302).

Hunt’s dismissal of Marx’s theory of surplus value (on which Engels of course had opinions and offered exegesis) suffers from a logical rather than contextual flaw: while the theory self-evidently does not generate a uniform rate of profit across all enterprises, it does not follow that the only way to achieve this result theoretically is to admit that capital equipment plays a part in profit-generation (304-6). This of course is the antithesis of Marx’s solution to the problem of profit in the first place, namely that it arises through a peculiar property residing in human labour only (and not in anything else, especially machines). Perhaps then Hunt’s strategy of trivialisation has come full circle at this point in that he has trivialised himself, unfortunately.

In sum, I did not like this book. And I do not like the genre. Calling it ‘popular biography’ is perhaps too kind. I’m not at all sure that turning lives into trivialising gossip and shock/horror sensation is really biography at all. It is more like the Anekdota of Procopius, his ‘secret histories’ of the Byzantine court – but at least he knew the people involved, had a stake in it all and took the risks. Let us hope that Hunt finds better things to do on TV than bring this book to a wider audience.

28 May 2010

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