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Excerpt: Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels


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 house guest 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 to go to his office. A few hours later we were standing at the gate waiting for him. We saw him coming over the little field opposite the house where he lived. He was swinging his stick in the air and singing, his face beaming. Then we set the table for a celebration and drank champagne and were happy."

Friedrich Engels was a textile magnate and foxhunter, a member of the Manchester Royal Exchange, and president of the city's Schiller Institute. He was a raffish, high-living, heavy-drinking devotee of the good things in life: lobster salad, Chateau Margaux, Pilsener beer, and expensive women. But Engels also for forty years funded Karl Marx, looked after his children, soothed his furies, and provided one half of history's most celebrated ideological partnership as coauthor of The Communist Manifesto and cofounder of what would come to be known as Marxism. Over the course of the twentieth century, from Chairman Mao's China to the Stasi state of the GDR, from the anti-imperial struggle in Africa to the Soviet Union itself, various manifestations of this compelling philosophy would cast their shadow over a full third of the human race. And as often as not, the leaders of the socialist world would look first to Engels rather than Marx to explain their policies, justify their excesses, and shore up their regimes. Interpreted and misinterpreted, quoted and misquoted, Friedrich Engelsthe frock-coated Victorian cotton lord became one of the central architects of global communism.

Today, a journey to Engels begins at Moscow's Paveletsky rail station. From this shabbily romantic tsarist-era terminal, the rusting sleeper train heaves off at midnight for the Volga plains hundreds of miles southeast of the capital. A grinding, stop- start fourteen-hour journey, alleviated only by a gurgling samovar in the guard's carriage, eventually lands you in the city of Saratov with its wide, tree-lined streets and attractive air of lost grandeur.

Bolted onto this prosperous provincial center is a crumbling six-lane highway that bridges the mighty Volga and connects Saratov to its unloved sister city, Engels. Lacking any of Saratov's sophistication, Engels is a seedy, forgotten site dominated by railway loading docks and the rusting detritus of light industry. At its civic center squats Engels Square, a bleak parade ground encircled by housing projects, a shabby strip mall dotted with sports bars, casinos, and DVD stores, and a roundabout clogged with Ladas, Sputniks, and the odd Ford. Here, in all its enervating grime, is the postcommunist Russia of hypercapitalism and bootleg Americana. And amid this free market dystopia stands a statue of Friedrich Engels himself. Fifteen feet high, atop a marble plinth and with a well-tended municipal flower bed at his feet, he looks resplendent in his trench coat, clutching a curling copy of The Communist Manifesto.

Across the former USSR and Eastern bloc, the statues of Marx (together with those of Lenin, Stalin, and Beria) have come down. Decapitated and mutilated, their remains are gathered together in monument graveyards for the ironic edification of Cold War cultural tourists. Inexplicably, Engels has been given leave to remain, still holding sway over his eponymous town. As a quick conversation with local residents and early-evening promenaders in Engels Square reveals, his presence here is the product neither of affection nor of admiration. Certainly, there is little hostility toward the cofounder of communism but rather a nonchalant indifference and weary apathy. Like the myriad plinths laden with nineteenth-century generals and long-forgotten social reformers that litter the squares of Western Europe an capitals, Engels has become an unknown and unremarkable part of the civic wallpaper.

In his birthplace, in the Rhineland town of Wuppertal (now a commuter suburb for the nearby finance and fashion city of Dusseldorf), a similar disinterest is evident. There is a Friedrich Engels Strasse and a Friedrich Engels Allee but little sense of a town overly eager to commemorate its most celebrated son. The site of Engels's Geburtshaus, destroyed by a Royal Air Force bombing raid in 1943, remains barren and all that marks the place of his arrival into the world is a dirty granite monument modestly noting his role as the "cofounder of scientific socialism." Covered in holly and ivy, it is edged into the shadowy corner of a run-down park, overlooked by aging portable toilets and a vandalized phone booth.

From the book Marx's General:The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt. Copyright 2009 by Tristram Hunt. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.

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Tristram Hunt