Wednesday, September 14, 2016

General Engels (2009)

Book Review from the February 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

John Green: Engels: a Revolutionary Life. Artery £10

Engels is often seen as playing very much second fiddle to Marx. But, as John Green points out, he brought to their partnership a greater first-hand familiarity with working-class life and capitalist production and commerce. While not as readable as Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx, this book is still both interesting and informative.

Before reading Green, I had not properly appreciated how much military experience Engels had. In 1848-9 he took part in the ‘revolutionary’ (in fact democratic and anti-Prussian) uprisings in the Rhineland, seeing action on several occasions. These events led to his long interest in military matters, to his being named as military adviser to the Paris Commune, and to his nickname (among Marx’s daughters, for instance) of ‘The General’. They also resulted in the Prussian government’s naming him as a wanted man, and eventually to his decision in 1850 to work in the Manchester office of the firm part-owned by his father.

From his previous time in England had come his famous work The Condition of the Working Class in England. Now Engels was forced to work in the company office, though he managed to live a double life, one as a businessman and one as an activist with his companions Mary and Lizzie Burns. While formally an employee, he received a share of the firm’s profits (over £1000 in 1859), much of which he forwarded to Marx, and on his death he left the then-tidy sum of £25,000.

Green makes an interesting observation to do with the German word wissenschaftlich. This is usually rendered in English as ‘scientific’, as in ‘scientific Socialism’, but it can equally well mean ‘theory-based’, which has fewer connotations than ‘scientific’.

This would have been a better book if Green had simply chronicled his subject’s life and ideas. Unfortunately, his Leninist sympathies have induced him to include some observations that are at best superfluous and at worst downright misleading. He starts off badly by comparing Engels to Che Guevara: two good-looking young men from well-off families who supposedly took the side of the oppressed.

Engels’ military ideas helped Trotsky, Mao and Che, it’s claimed, and the League of Communists, which he joined in 1847, worked on the basis of democratic centralism, which later became a cornerstone of Leninist parties. The Bolshevik concept was in fact far more centralist than democratic, and Green just ignores Marx’s and Engels’ insistence on workers liberating themselves, a principle rejected by Leninists and all would-be leaders.

So a mixture of a good biography and some dodgy political pleading.
Paul Bennett

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