Marx's General

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Marx’s General, Tristram Hunt’s biography of Friedrich Engels, begins with Engels’s birth to the prosperous Rhineland businessman Friedrich Engels and his wife Elise on November 28, 1820. Engels was raised in the town of Barmen in Germany’s Wupper Valley. The family operated a yarn business and was known for its generous treatment of its employees, the ribbon makers, joiners, craftsmen, and others whom young Friedrich came to know on easy terms. The Wupper Valley region boasted many churches, visible evidence of the “aggressive” form of Lutheran Pietism that the Engelses shared to a degree. Hunt argues that, despite Engels’s complaints about his father’s perceived philistinism in later years, he enjoyed a comfortable and satisfying family life.

At age fourteen, Engels enrolled in the gymnasium at Elberfeld, where a Dr. Clausen spurred his interest in Germany’s medieval past and the burgeoning Romantic period fostered by Friedrich Schiller and the Schlegel brothers, Friedrich and August Wilhelm. In 1836, he began writing his own Romantic effusions about ancient German heroes, but in 1837, his father grew tired of what he perceived as this nonsense. He took Engels out of school and soon assigned him to a commercial apprenticeship in the family’s firm in Bremen.

In Bremen, Engels associated with a group of young radicals and immersed himself in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley while writing for Telegraph for Deutschland under the pseudonym Friedrich Oswald. His letters from Wuppertal provided what Hunt calls “a magnificently brutal critique of the human costs of capitalism,” motivated perhaps by a rejection of the religious pietism of his youth, as seen in his enthusiasm for David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (1835; The Life of Jesus: Or, A Critical Examination of His History, 1843; better known as The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 1846). His next step after reading Strauss was to essay the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel’s idealist philosophy is neatly summarized by Hunt: “In its essence the passage of history consisted [for Hegel] of the organic growth of freedom and reason in civilization in a teleological manner, culminating in the fulfillment of the Spirit.” Not entirely satisfied by the Spirit, in 1841 Engels abandoned his desk job and accepted a year’s service with a Prussian artillery unit.

Engels was stationed in Berlin, the scene in 1841 of a struggle between competing schools of Hegelian philosophy. The “Right Hegelians,” favored by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, regarded the state as the embodiment of history and committed to tradition and hierarchy, whereas the “Left Hegelians,” or “Young Hegelians,” saw their own era as but one stage in Hegel’s ongoing dialectic, in which neither Prussian rule nor Christianity represented an end to history. A damaging blow came to both schools in the form of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity, 1854), a head-on materialist assault on the identity of Christian theology and Hegelian “rational mysticism.”

The French Revolution encouraged the birth in the nineteenth century of several utopian socialist movements, such as those led by Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. More radical were the early communists, especially the man Engels called the “first” communist of the party, Moses Hess. Influenced partly by a wealthy radical, August von Cieszkowski, Hess agitated for the abolishment of private property and improved living conditions for the proletariat, goals that attracted the Young Hegelians to his side and made Engels a communist for life.

By 1830, the 550 cotton mills of Lancashire, England, employed over 100,000 workers, making the county a center of the Industrial Revolution. Engels arrived in Manchester (then part of Lancashire) in 1842, the year that city endured devastating riots that were suppressed by the army. He soon made two friends among the Chartists: George Julian Harvey, an advocate of insurrection, and James Leach, a weaver. It was, in Hunt’s description, the “sage, polemicist, and reactionary” Thomas Carlyle whose condemnation of capitalism spoke most loudly to Engels.

In 1843, Engels met Mary Burns, the uneducated daughter of a Manchester factory hand, who became his lover and his guide to the hell of the mill communities. At about this time, Engels began writing about alienation, the concept that capitalism split humans away from their essential selves through the ruthless pursuit of private property. A corollary of alienation was the important Marxist teaching that social class was economically...

(The entire section is 1937 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 21 (July 1, 2009): 14.

The Economist 392, no. 8644 (August 15, 2009): 76-77.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 12 (June 15, 2009): 644.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 16 (October 22, 2009): 25-27.

The New York Times, August 19, 2009, p. 1.

The New Yorker 85, no. 32 (October 12, 2009): 123.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 25 (June 22, 2009): 41.

Time 174, no. 11 (September 21, 2009): 22.

The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2009, p. W8.