A welcome life of Karl Marx’s factotum, benefactor and co-author, who talked a good revolutionary game while living a happily bourgeois life.
The little town of Wuppertal, Germany, where Friedrich Engels was born in 1820, shows little interest in its native son these days. The same holds in great swaths of territory that lay behind the erstwhile Iron Curtain. There, writes Hunt (History/Univ. of London; Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, 2005), “Engels has become an unknown and unremarkable part of the civic wallpaper.” Perhaps surprisingly to contemporary readers, Engels had a fine head for the details of business and made a considerable fortune in the ascendant years of industrialism. Just as surprisingly, he enjoyed that wealth and the things it bought, not least of them a small army of prostitutes over the years. He was also a great admirer of the eminent conservative writer Thomas Carlyle, who was a noted Germanophile but no socialist. None of these quirks of personality or peccadilloes detracts from Engels’s contributions to socialism, however. After Marx’s death, writes Hunt, Engels modestly gave his friend almost all the credit for that work, saying only, “I cannot deny that both before and during my forty years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundations of the theory.” Yet Engels’s economic journalism and historical awareness were critical to socialist and communist thought, allowing Marx to arrive at conclusions that seem very modern today—particularly the phenomena of globalism, which the two foresaw a century and a half ago, and modern imperialism, which Engels connected to “class structure.” Hunt’s narrative is lively and consistently engaging—so much so that readers will hardly divine the endless dull patches in works such as Das Capital—and admiring without being uncritical, given how things turned out. Engels was a “Victorian embodiment of self-sacrifice and self-contradiction,” Hunt concludes.
An excellent biography, worthy of shelving alongside Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx: A Life (2000).