How Friedrich Engels, 'Marx's General,' Helped Lead The Revolution Friedrich Engels wasn't born a revolutionary, but over the course of several beer-soaked days in Paris, he became part of "the greatest friendship in Western political thought."
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How 'Marx's General' Helped Lead The Revolution

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How 'Marx's General' Helped Lead The Revolution

How 'Marx's General' Helped Lead The Revolution

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

A few weeks after the financial meltdown began last fall, a book started creeping up the bestseller lists. The book was Karl Marx's anti-capitalist opus, "Das Kapital." And yet while Karl Marx is widely considered one of the most influential political philosophers in history, his close collaborator, Friedrich Engels, is often overlooked.

Well, historian Tristram Hunt is hoping to put an end to the slight. His new biography of Engels is called "Marx's General." And Tristram Hunt is in our London bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TRISTRAM HUNT (Author, "Marx's General"): Thanks very much.

RAZ: The influence of Karl Marx's writings on the 20th century can't be overstated. How much was Friedrich Engels a part of that?

Mr. HUNT: Well, this is one of the very interesting debates, the degree to which Engels' interpretation of Marx influenced what became Marxism in the 20th century. And a lot of people found it rather easier to read Engels than it was to read the great leviathan of "Das Kapital." And if you look at the leaders of European socialism in the early 20th century, and indeed American socialism, a lot of them go to Engels first, and there is this disagreement as to whether Engels misinterpreted Marx and led the way towards Leninism and Stalinism, something I disagree with profoundly.

But I think whichever way you cut the cake, the influence of Marx was profound, but it was also in a very uncomfortable direction. And what we're seeing at the moment is the rediscovery of Marxian thinking in another age, as it was in the mid-19th century, of unregulated global capitalism.

RAZ: Friedrich Engels came from a wealthy family in Germany. How did he become radicalized?

Mr. HUNT: It was first of all really through losing his religion. He grew up in a pious, conservative, religious household, strongly Protestant. He lost that as a late teenager and discovered in the philosophy of Hegel a supplement for the faith he had lost. And from Hegel, he went to the radical end of Hegelian thinking amongst the young Hegelians, and then he really came to Marxism by living in Manchester and discovering the condition of the working class in Manchester, those exploited in the mills and the factories, those living in the terrible tenements, those experiencing a life expectancy of only 26 years.

RAZ: And in Manchester, he is actually working for the family business.

Mr. HUNT: This is the great irony, that Engels is himself a cotton lord.

RAZ: This is a textile company.

Mr. HUNT: Absolutely, part of, you know, that huge textile industry in Manchester. And Engels always found that tension between him a bourgeois, as a capitalist, and then his communist thinking. And Engels writes a very interesting paper on political economy. It catches Marx's eye. And the two of them meet in 1844 and begin, without doubt, the greatest friendship in Western political thought.

RAZ: This is a meeting in Paris that you describe in 1844. They had these 10 beer-soaked days reveling together in Paris.

Mr. HUNT: Beer was a big part of Marx and Engels' relationship. They were both big drinkers. Engels really a sort of Teutonic, almost, you know, Prussian figure in his consumption, and Marx a far angrier drinker, a more depressive drinker. But the two of them found that these ideas were fueled together, and those were the happiest times they had in Paris in the mid-1840s, in Brussels, and the hope of revolution and the chance of change was always there for them then.

RAZ: And just a few years after they meet in Paris, of course, you have this series of uprisings across Europe, the 1848 revolutions. Did these two men believe that this was the start of their dream?

Mr. HUNT: Absolutely. I mean, they were delighted with the course of events in 1848. When European nation after European nation begins to cascade towards revolution, and they thought this was the beginning of a process which might lead towards a socialist revolution. And Engels himself is on the barricades while Marx is in the editor's chair, issuing pamphlets and denouncing reactionaries.

Engels is actually on the barricades back in his hometown, fighting for revolution. And you know, this old thing of having bullets whistle past you and making him a man, and he's delighted that he actually sees revolution. So he's not just an armchair revolutionary.

RAZ: Those revolutions, of course, fail, and the two men return to England. Marx, you write, begins work on "Das Kapital." Engels basically agrees to bankroll him. You write that he was so enthralled by Marx that he almost subsumed his own interests and priorities for him. Why is that?

Mr. HUNT: This is the fascinating crux of the friendship. They come back from the 1848-'49 revolutions. They see revolution as a long way off. They agree that they have to lay out their political manifesto, and only Marx can do that. Marx is the genius, but Engels knows that if Marx is going to do that, he will have to pay for it. And so he goes back to the family firm, and he has this terrible 20 years of working in the cotton industry, exploiting the working class and then funneling all the money down to Marx behind his parents' backs.

So you have these wonderful letters where in one letters, Engels would rip up a five pound note in half and send that and then send the other half a day later in case it was stolen in the post.

RAZ: You describe Engels as a man who sort of lived a paradoxical life. You called him a frock-coated Victorian cotton lord. He was a man who liked a fox hunt. He enjoyed fine wines, haute cuisine. You talk about Chateau Margaux 1848, for example, as his drink of choice.

Mr. HUNT: On the one hand, there is this contradiction of Engels as a fox hunter living the high life and then also trying to instigate a proletarian socialist revolution. On the other hand, Engels' vision of socialism, like Marx's vision, wasn't the kind of dour, dowdy, puritan vision that came in so many labor and socialist movements in the 20th century. It was about humanity fulfilling its capacity. It was about fun. It was about enjoyment, and the point was to spread those riches, to allow the working classes to have Chateau Margaux, to allow the working classes to go fox hunting, to have the fun of human capacity rather than the terrible grind, the (unintelligible), the exploitation he saw all around him in the Manchester mills and factories.

RAZ: Tristram Hunt, could Karl Marx have become Karl Marx, the one we know today, without Friedrich Engels?

Mr. HUNT: I think the ideas would have been there to a certain extent, but I think what Engels provides is the way those ideas worked out on the ground. Engels provides the evidence. He is the one in Manchester seeing how the wage system works, seeing how capital fluctuates, seeing how stock markets function, and he feeds all that back into Marx's thinking. But crucially, he's also the one who goes further, trying to develop Marxism as a political project, and he's an organizer. He's working there in the First International.

So I think Engels is crucial. We'll never know, you know, could Marx have been Marx without Engels. But I think you miss a great deal if you take away Engels from the historical picture.

RAZ: Tristram Hunt is the author of the new biography "Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels." He spoke with us from London.

Mr. Hunt, thank you so much.

Mr. HUNT: Thanks for having me.

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