[OPE] 'The New Relevance of Friedrich Engels: An Interview with Tristram Hunt'

From: Gerald Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Sun Sep 27 2009 - 09:28:27 EDT

The New Relevance of Friedrich Engels: An Interview with Tristram Hunt
By Aaron Leonard
Mr. Leonard is a freelance journalist specializing in controversial
political commentary. His columns and interviews span the gamut from
geopolitics to economics to religion. He is a regular contributor to the
HNN.US. His column, Is That Right? can be found in New York University's
"Washington Square News" and at www.aaronleonard.net.

 Dr. Tristram Hunt is one of Britain's best known young historians. Educated
at Cambridge and Chicago Universities, he is lecturer in British history at
Queen Mary, University of London and author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise
and Fall of the Victorian City. A leading historical broadcaster, he has
authored numerous series for BBC Radio and Television and Channel 4. A
regular contributor to the London Times, the Guardian and the Observer, he
is a Trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Fellow of the Royal
Historical Society.

*Your latest book is Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich
Engels. What moved you to write this book?*

It grew out of my work on the Victorian city, which is what I did my PhD on
at Cambridge. After that I wrote, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of
the Victorian City, and if you go anywhere near the Victorian city you meet
Engels. I, like so many others, was blown away by Engels's Conditions of the
Working Class in England -- despite all the later critiques of it. Engels
seemed to me a very fascinating character.

I was also struck by what the biographer Francis Wheen had done for Marx,
bringing this distant character to life. What I wanted to do was explore
Engels and Engels's life in an urban milieu -- in terms of London, Paris and
Manchester --explore the intellectual history and explore his character. He's
always been in the shadow of Marx and the shadow of Lenin really. So it came
out of the urban interest, but I was drawn toward his character. As soon as
I began to dig I discovered the fascinating nature of his contradictory
status; the Burns sisters [his longtime loves], the battles with his
parents... it all seemed like a compelling story.

*There's a back and forth that goes on in the book between Engels' radical
worldview and the actual world he occupied. Here's this textile
manufacturer --enmeshed in the cotton trade and all that that connotes in
the mid-19th century -- yet it is because of this Marx is able to write
"Capital" -- one of the great books of the contemporary era. How do you see
this conflict?*

I think it was important, as you say, to bring out the contradiction. It was
revelatory to chart the income Engels received as an employee and partner of
Erman & Engels, and how much went down to Marx and how Marx used it to fund
the writing of Das Capital. To follow the money [you get a sense of] out how
Marx actually lived to be able to write his great work and how dependent he
was upon the textile trade for his own financial security.

One of the other things I wanted to bring out were the intellectual advances
Marx was able to make because of Engels's work in the textile industry.
Matters of deprecation rates, machinery, wage levels, all the stuff Engels
learned at Erman & Engels was then of use to Marx.

I think in terms of the contradiction, Engels was always aware of it and
very touchy about it -- for example the battle with Duhring [who attacked
Engels for his lifestyle] and lots of other socialists commented upon it.

I think on the one hand that contradiction appealed to Engels's idea of
sacrifice. Coming from his Calvinist heritage -- he had to go out into the
world, he had to go to Manchester, sacrifice himself so that Marx could
produce the Great Work. So the contradiction was one of sacrifice as much as
it was one of hypocrisy. At the same time there was a kind of high-handed
Prussian disinterest in bourgeois mores in terms of how could you marry
being a communist and capitalist. That kind of moralizing did not really
interest him -- its rather like the Royal Family in Britain today, they
never apologize and they never explain.

Then there was living in a capitalist society. You did what you had to do
you had to do. You made compromises to the existing situation and if Engels
hadn't there wouldn't have been the money for Marx.

*I found this to be a sophisticated biography -- not just of Engels
personally, but philosophically and politically. This is a fact that seems
to have eluded some, for example the Wall Street Journal review of your book
describes Engels as, "the man who pioneered the mumbo-jumbo of dialectical
materialism" (this from some of the same people who brought you derivative
trading!). That aside, what do you see as Engels's overarching intellectual

>From my own intellectual background I think Engels's most interesting
contribution is not in the terrain of classical Marx, in economics, it is in
the application of Marx's thinking in other areas. I think in terms of urban
theory Engels is a brilliant thinker. His analysis of the space of the city,
the form of the city, using a class paradigm to understand how cities are
made and remade whether its Manchester, London or Paris. I think this
presents all sorts of interesting insights.

I think Engels's work on feminism in the Origin of the Family, Private
Property, and the State is equally compelling. To point out the economic
reality behind sexism is a great contribution.
I think on the colonial question, this great U-turn in thinking that Marx
and Engels undergo regarding imperialism as part of the quickening mode of
production, as part of this capitalist process. Also his developing the idea
of colonial resistance which Engels really makes a breakthrough with his
writing on Ireland.

All that I think is compelling, more compelling for me than his work on
dialectical materialism. Even though that had such an ideological impact in
the 20th century.
Of course it is the case that each generation and each political movement
takes from Engels and take from Marx which elements they want. So now we all
read The Conditions of the Working Class in England which has been reprinted
numerous times in the past 15 - 20 years. No one read it 50 years ago --
they were all reading Anti Duhring and Socialism Utopian and Scientific. It
will probably change again I imagine.

*I was struck by the degree Engels was actually in the midst of world events
as they unfolded. Can you talk about his experience in particular in 1848
and what impelled him?*

Its a fascinating moment of hands-on revolutionary activism. They [Marx and
Engels] were very excited by 1848-49. This would not be a proletarian
revolution, this would be a bourgeois revolution which would then begin the
process toward proletarian revolution. They wanted to see the old monarchies
of the Austria Hapsburg empire and the principalities and kingdoms of German
states crumble...to fast track that process.

Engels returns to his home town to try and raise the red flag of revolution,
as the contemporary critics had it. You see here Engels as, in a sense, Marx's
General. The military man, the action man, happy to get his hands dirty.
While Marx himself is back in the relative safety of Cologne editing a
newspaper being the typical pamphleteer. Engels is out dealing with the
Committee for Public Safety.
I think it is also incredibly important that they didn't have this
reputation as just a boasters and pamphleteers. They got amongst it. Engels
saw a number of campaigns. Though it wasn't "the storming the Bastille,"
i.e., the single heroic fight you would have liked. There were an awful lot
of skirmishes and a lot of the boredom of war as well. There was also the
confusion of war. He was arrested as a Prussian spy for a moment. But all
this I think gave him a sense of the practicality of warfare.

Also, and this is crucial in his military writings later, he developed a
deep contempt for amateurism, a strong belief in only having revolution when
the times are right. And an understanding of the futility of launching
revolution before the socioeconomic conditions are correct.

*The picture you present of Engels is of someone who had a passion for life.
There's this illuminating passage where you talk about this parlor game
"Confessions" that Jenny Marx played with
Engels where you get a more personal picture of him. What kind of person was

I think he was a man of enormous energy and markedly lacking the self-doubt
which Marx had.

One always envisions Marx bent over his desk, the furious writing, the
scribbling out, the sense of persecution, the health problems, family
troubles and all of it boiling up inside him, actually killing him in one
way or another. Engels was less complicated in one sense. He enjoys life, he
enjoys the finer things of life, he enjoys physicality, hiking, hunting, or
warfare. He enjoys playing the host, which Marx rarely did. Engels, on a
Sunday afternoon in London would have the Socialists over and there would
be the bitchiness and backbiting but you also would have the open table, the
wine and the food. He would be a compelling host. I love this idea of him
ending the afternoons by drunkenly singing the "Vicar of Bray." I think
there was this idea, seriously, of the joys of socialism and it goes back to
Charles Fourier... these kind of physical sensual pleasures which are partly
what make life happy. If you are a decent atheist these are the fun parts of
life. These riches; intellectual riches, gastronomic riches, sensual riches,
should be available to as many people as possible. There's no shame in being
a champagne communist. It's not a term of abuse, it's an aspiration. And
Engels thought that I think.

*One of my favorite quotes from Marx comes from the "Poverty of Philosophy"
in which he says, "History is nothing more than the constant transformation
of human nature." I thought of this when you wrote, "The crass racial
caricatures of the Irish he had once offered gave way to a far more
sophisticated reading of Anglo-Irish relation, heavily enriched by his
materialist and colonialist theorizing" To what degree did Marx's definition
apply to Engels?*

I think enormously. You see a maturing and transformation of Engels on
numerous levels. On the level of the Irish in 1844 he basically picks up
where Thomas Carlyle left off and provides this racialist caricature of the
Irish; drunken, sensual, wanton, bestial people. But then his relations with
the Burns sisters, his visits to Ireland, all the rest of it, reshapes his

Politically there's also this remarkable transformation which is that Engels
is beginning to look at the arrival of socialism through the ballot box,
through public opinion, that you did not necessarily have to have a very
bloody, savage, quick proletarian revolution to get to socialism. Actually
what he saw in Germany, with the the SPD [Social Democratic Party], what he
saw going on in France, was the more the working class got the vote, that
socialism could come about that way. He always held on to the fact that you
had the right to instigate socialism through violent revolution, but he saw
different options.

He also becomes a far more pluralist thinker. He is willing to have debate.
The Engels of the 1850s - 1860s is very violent in his language. Very
absolutist, crushing political opposition to Marx's thinking. In the 1890s
he is beginning to think about other voices, allowing a broader presence of
dialog. There's is a shift. I don't mean he mellows. I think there's an
ideological and intellectual shift in his ideas about the arrival of
socialism. He is always adamant that the vanguardist, top-down, overnight
revolution that is going to take place in 1917 would not deliver the kind of
socialism he wanted.

*You end the book discussing Engels culpability or lack thereof, for what
came after him. Could you talk about that and whether or not you feel Engels
is still relevant?*

What I try and do toward the end of the book is trace the interpretation or
misinterpretation of how Engels codifies Marxian thinking, and to a certain
degree simplifies elements of it through Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,
which is the great work which brings so many toward socialism -- rather than
having to go through Das Kapital. How a generation raised on Darwin rather
than Hegel as Kautsky puts it, moves that thinking toward the kind of
dialectical materialism, the totalizing scientistic socialism which Lenin
and then Stalin are going to use to justify their project in the Soviet
Union. How those ideas, as I suggested, lack the pluralism, the heuristic
questioning nature of Engels in the 1880s and 1890s. I really don't think
you can blame Engels for the diamat (dialectical materialism) that Stalin
codified even though they looked to him and quoted him, and they loved
Dialectics of Nature and all the rest of it.

I think Engels today is profoundly interesting, not in terms of that -- his
legacy in the first half of the 20th Century -- but, in terms of the
critique of the human costs of capitalism. I do think there is an
interesting historical parallel between the kind of rapid urbanization and
rapid industrialization and all the environmental and social consequences
which you see Engels chronicling in the 1830s and 1840s and what you see
particularly in places like China, India, parts of Brazil, and Russia today.
How those nations are dealing with the consequences of urbanization and
industrialization just as Britain and Western Europe dealt with it in the
19th century. It is a fascinating historical debate. I think Engels's
contribution to that his description of the poverty and alienation,
immiseration which you see amongst working classes, working people in so
called "brick nations" today. But also the cities, how they are laid out,
those extremities of poverty, and justification of processes by the modern
bourgeoisie. There are all sorts of parallels and I think Engels speaks to
that very readily.

*What are you currently working on?*

I'm just starting work on a book, I think will be called, Cities of Empire.
The story of British Imperialism through the urban form. Ten cities that
tell the story of the British Empire.

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Received on Sun Sep 27 09:31:06 2009

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