Marx's General The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

Tristram Hunt




Trade Paperback

464 Pages


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Friedrich Engels is one of the most intriguing and contradictory figures of the nineteenth century. Born to a prosperous Prussian mercantile family, he spent his life working in the Manchester cotton industry, riding to the Cheshire hounds, and enjoying the comfortable upper-middle-class existence of a Victorian gentleman.

Yet Engels was also, with Karl Marx, the founder of international communism, which in the twentieth century came to govern one-third of the human race. He was the coauthor of The Communist Manifesto, a ruthless party tactician, and the man who sacrificed his best years so that Marx could write Das Kapital. His searing account of the Industrial Revolution, The Condition of the Working Class in England, remains one of the most haunting and brutal indictments of the human costs of capitalism. Far more than Marx’s indispensable aide, Engels was a profound thinker in his own right—on warfare, feminism, urbanism, Darwinism, technology, and colonialism. With fierce clarity, he predicted the social effects of today’s free-market fundamentalism and unstoppable globalization.

Drawing on a wealth of letters and archives, acclaimed historian Tristram Hunt plumbs Engels’s intellectual legacy and shows us how one of the great bon viveurs of Victorian Britain reconciled his exuberant personal life with his radical political philosophy. Set against the backdrop of revolutionary Europe and industrializing England—of Manchester mills, Paris barricades, and East End strikes—Marx’s General tells a story of devoted friendship, class compromise, ideological struggle, and family betrayal. And it tackles head-on the question of Engels’s influence: was Engels, after Marx’s death, responsible for some of the most devastating turns of twentieth-century history, or was the idealism of his thought distorted by those who claimed to be his followers? Marx’s General at last brings Engels out from the shadow of his famous friend and collaborator.


Praise for Marx's General

"In his new book, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, Tristram Hunt argues that Engels has become a convenient scapegoat, too easily blamed for the state crimes of the Soviet Union and Communist Southeast Asia and China. 'Engels is left holding the bag of 20th-century ideological extremism,' Mr. Hunt writes, 'while Marx is rebranded as the acceptable, postpolitical seer of global capitalism.' Mr. Hunt, a young British academic and a columnist for The Guardian, embarks on a two-part rescue mission in Marx’s General. He wants first to show us the human Engel, portraying him as gregarious and bighearted. He also works mightily to defend Engels against most of the calumnies later committed in his and Marx’s names. Mr. Hunt is so successful at the first goal that the big takeaway of Marx’s General may be that Engels, best known as a ruthless party tactician, comes across as the Mario Batali of international communism: a jovial man of outsize appetites who was referred to by his son-in-law as 'the great beheader of Champagne bottles' . . . At the end of this vivid and thoughtful biography, you are quite persuaded that Friedrich Engels would have been a fine man to drink a Margaux with. And it is surely true, as Mr. Hunt puts it, that Engels’s larger critique of capitalism—and his hope for a more dignified kind of humanity —'resonates down the ages.'"—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"As double acts go, the names of Marx and Engels don't have quite the ring of Bonnie and Clyde or Laurel and Hardy, but celebrity wasn't ever the point. Revolution was. It is often assumed that Friedrich Engels (1820-95), a prosperous mill owner, was a kind of patron to Karl Marx, and so he proved to be. But he was a formidable thinker in his own right . . . Tristram Hunt's admiring biography of Engels, Marx's General, goes further to redress the balance, arguing on behalf of Engels's intellectual contribution and, along the way, showing him to be a more interesting and paradoxical character than the man who ­pioneered the ­mumbo-jumbo of dialectical materialism. Mr. Hunt depicts a laughter-loving Engels, a 'joy inspirer' to his friends—the original champagne communist. In later life, Engels said that his idea of happiness was a Château Margaux 1848. The year is an important one in non-vintage respects, too—it was the year of Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto and of the revolutions across Europe that seemed to validate, for a brief moment, its road map to a socialist utopia . . . Mr. Hunt is remarkably good at distilling an epoch and conveying a sense of place, and he perfectly judges the pace of his narrative, illustrating what he is saying without burdening the reader with detail best left in the archives."—Rupert Darwall, The Wall Street Journal

"When the financial crisis took off last autumn, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, originally published in 1867, whooshed up bestseller lists. The first book to describe the relentless, all-consuming and global nature of capitalism had suddenly gained new meaning. But Marx had never really gone away, whereas Friedrich Engels—the man who worked hand in glove with him for most of his life and made a huge contribution to Das Kapital—is almost forgotten. A new biography by a British historian, Tristram Hunt, makes a good case for giving him greater credit . . . Mr Hunt does a brilliant job of setting the two men’s endeavours in the context of the political, social and philosophical currents at the time."—The Economist

"A brilliant biography of the contradictory life of one genius who happifly sacrificed for another . . . Marx's General is a terrific account of the nineteenth-century intellectual climate that led to Marxism; it's also a memorable depiction of Engels-era Manchester; but most of all, it's an insightful, important portrait of the most historically important friendship of the nineteenth century. A great book."—Chuck Leddy, The Boston Globe

"A perceptive tour not just through Engel's life but through philosophy and political thought in the ninteenth cetnruy . . . Greatly enjoyable."—The New Yorker

“Written with brio, warmth, and historical understanding, this is more than the best biography of one of the most attractive inhabitants of Victorian England, Karl Marx’s friend, partner, and political heir. It is also one of the most accessible and persuasive studies of how the arguments of young philosophers in the 1840s grew into the movement that shook and changed the world in the twentieth century.”—Eric Hobsbawm, author of The Age of Revolution and The Age of Extremes

“Vivid and sharply observed . . . Tristram Hunt brings to the fore the extraordinary pressures which shaped Engels’s personality and made him a virtuoso of the double life. In this novel and refreshing account, Engels is as last freed from the condescension of posterity.”—Gareth Stedman Jones, author of Outcast London

“Does an excellent job of bringing Engels out from the shadow of the man he served so devotedly.”—Alan Ryan, The Literary Review (UK)

"Beautifully writtern and consistently interesting . . . Full of arresting vignettes and thought-stirring insights."—John Gray, The Independent (UK)

"With this splendid biography, British historian Tristram Hunt rescues Engels, not only as an important 19th-century thinker in his own right, but as a fascinating bundle of contradictions."—Alan Cate, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“A splendid, gripping biography . . . Tristram Hunt’s witty, humane and sharp-eyed portrait of Engels does justice to the complex chemistry of the relationship with Marx, but also sets the ‘junior partner’ at the centre of his own life and intellectual evolution.”—Christopher Clark, Standpoint (UK)

“Excellent . . . The partner who willingly played ‘second fiddle’ to capitalism’s Jeremiah receives his due.”—Robert Service, The Sunday Times (UK)

“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 , '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.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“With strong scholarship in Marxist history and theory, a fluent style and some healthy doses of irony, Hunt traces the coauthor of The Communist Manifesto from his pious Prussian roots through his apprenticeship in the family textile firm in Manchester, England, early years at the forefront of revolutionary upheavals throughout Europe and his subsequent return to the family industry to support Marx's family and writing. Engels is characterized as a gregarious yet committed theorist and activist, providing considerable financial and intellectual resources to Marx while accepting his own role as ‘second fiddle’ in their joint battle for socialist ideological dominance. Though the book makes a strong case for the value of Engels's own writings on working conditions and defends against reductive readings that would align him with the rigid orthodoxies of Leninism and Stalinism, the author is clear-eyed with regard to Engels's less savory, sometimes ‘deeply chilling’ ideas and his divisive manipulations of organizations and party politics. This is an impressive biography of a fascinating figure whose attempts to synthesize his own contradictory roles as arch-capitalist and seminal communist, embody the very notion of dialectics so central to Marxist theory.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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On 30 June 1869, Friedrich Engels, a Manchester mill owner, gave up his job in the family business after nearly twenty years. Ready to greet him on his return to his small cottage in the Chorlton suburbs were his lover Lizzy Burns and houseguest Eleanor Marx, daughter of his old friend Karl. "I was with Engels when he reached the end of his forced labour and I saw what he must have gone through all those years," Eleanor later wrote of Engels's final day at work. "I shall never forget the triumph with which he exclaimed 'for the last time!' as he put on his boots in the morning

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  • Tristram Hunt

  • Tristram Hunt, one of Britain's leading young historians, is a lecturer in history at the University of London. The author of Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, he writes political and cultural commentary for The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications.

  • Tristram Hunt Tom Whittaker
    Tristram Hunt