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How '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."

Author and historian Tristram Hunt tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz that beer was a big part Engel's relationship with political philosopher Karl Marx.

"They were both big drinkers," Hunt says. "Engels drank as a Teutonic, almost Prussian." Marx was an angrier, more depressive drinker. "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."

Years after their first soggy discussions, when socialist revolution swept over the continent, it was Engels, not Marx, who went among the radical masses to agitate for change. Hunt's new book, Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels credits Marx with flashes of socialist brilliance, but says it was Engels' dedication that helped give rise to revolution.

While Marx was "issuing pamphlets and denouncing reactionaries, Engels is actually on the barricades, back in his hometown, fighting for revolution," Hunt says. "And this old thing of having bullets whistle past you and making him a man, he's delighted that he actually sees revolution. So he's not just an armchair revolutionary."

Engels grew up in a pious, Protestant home, the son of German textile manufacturer, and lost his faith as a late teenager. Hunt says the writings of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel supplemented the faith Engels had lost, but the spark that ignited the Marxian fire was when the young man worked and lived in Manchester, England, "discovering the condition of the working class — those exploited in the mills, in the factories, those living in the terrible tenements. And that was the radicalization."

The irony of this life-changing experience was that Engels realized he was part of the problem. He worked for the family business, part of Manchester's huge textile industry.

From this realization, Engels wrote a paper on political economy that caught Marx's attention. Fueled by their sizable drinking habits, their friendship laid the philosophical foundation for the socialist revolution.

Engels worked closely with Marx to craft their political manifesto as Marx wrote Das Kapital. Soon, Engels realized he'd have to cede the intellectual spotlight to his friend.

"This is the fascinating crux of the friendship," Hunt says. Marx was the genius. Engels wasn't as much of a genius. In order to get Das Kapital published, Engels knew he would have to — literally — pay for it.

Engels returned to the family textile firm, a "terrible 20 years of working in the cotton industry, exploiting the working class," and secretly funneling money to Marx to publish their ideas. Engels lived a double life as a "frock-coated Victorian cotton lord" by day and communist by night — who likely sipped Chateau Margaux 1848 as he tried to "instigate a proletarian socialist revolution," Hunt says.

His factory-floor observations provided real-world evidence for how Marx's ideas could — or could not work — off the page. Engels is "the one in Manchester seeing how the wage system works, seeing how capital fluctuates, seeing how stock markets function," Hunt says. "And all this is fed into Marx's thinking."

Contrary to the "dour, dowdy, puritan vision" of so many labor and socialist movements in the 20th century, Hunt says, Engels and Marx wanted the working class to enjoy the spoils of business.

Engels' vision of socialism, like Marx's vision, was about humanity fulfilling its capacity, he says. It was about enjoyment, and allowing the working classes lives of fun rather than the terrible grind of Manchester's factories.

After Marx died in 1883, Engels continued their propagandizing, gathering his friend's papers and reworking them into the second and third volumes of Das Kapital. Some argue that he radically revised Marx's original drafts of the book, but Hunt says Engels "did what he'd always done. He explained it, he slightly codified it, he clarified elements of the argument ... [T]his was Engels, really, continuing the work."

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