Engels—The Communist as Hedonist - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Engels—The Communist as Hedonist


What would Friedrich Engels have made of the civil disorder that broke out around the world in the summer of 2020, the bicentenary year of his birth? Would he have looked with favor on the revolutionary mindset that overnight seemed to hijack the public mood in the United States? Might he have endorsed the ideas of defunding, even abolishing, the police, of turning possibly wrongly convicted felons loose on the streets, and of celebrating previously stigmatized personal lifestyles and other choices? Would he have agreed with the notion that a state’s citizens bear collective guilt for their country’s past sins, a stain they can efface only if they read, internalize, and publicly praise books on communally approved lists, shop primarily at officially sanctioned outlets, and in general deport themselves as beacons of moral character?

The answer to these and other pertinent questions is: up to a point. The coauthor of The Communist Manifesto was at all times driven by something more than mere personal distaste for the prevailing order. Behind the rhetoric lay a belief in the equal validity of every human and a detestation of a system that confined individuals to a predetermined, indefeasible track in life. Yet he reveled in the opulence afforded by his own station in life, high above the masses. Few public figures have been as adept as Engels at reconciling seeming opposites—or at treating high-minded politics and personal sensualism as inseparable rather than antithetical.

Engels’s people were prosperous Victorian businessmen with thriving textile mills in Britain and Germany. After performing his mandatory military service in Prussia, where he enjoyed drawing attention to his stylish attire (“I shall soon be promoted to bombardier, which is a sort of non-commissioned officer, and I shall get gold braid to wear on my facings,” he wrote home), the svelte and bearded twenty-two-year-old was dispatched to the family firm in Manchester, northern England. The contradictions between the already austere Hegelian socialist-philosopher and the dandified young textile merchant with a taste for the good things in life—especially when it came to fine wine and expensive women—provide the essential through line to his career.

Here is Boss Engels writing to a friend about the current state of labor relations at his Manchester premises: “Godfrey has taken on three fellows for me who are absolutely hopeless. . . . I shall have to sack one or two of them.” And a month later, when a different employee was dismissed following an administrative lapse on his part: “That was the last straw as far as slovenliness was concerned, and he was axed.”

Engels did not stint himself when it came to his own terms of employment. At one time, every schoolchild was familiar with the financial advice that Charles Dickens has Mr. Micawber offer the eponymous hero of his novel David Copperfield, published in 1850. (“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence, result happiness.”) That same year, the thirty-year-old Engels paid himself a base salary of £100, plus an “expenses and entertainment bonus” of £200. He also took a cut of his company’s annual profit to the tune of £408, rising to £978 by 1860. When all the figures are added up, it seems that young Friedrich was enjoying a gross annual salary of around £1,000, at a time when a British family doctor earned an average £200, a beat policeman £55, and a common farm laborer a mere £30. Since a Manchester restaurant meal of meat, vegetables, and beer was then available for three pence­—one eightieth of one pound sterling—Engels’s entertainment stipend would have been a further bulwark between the wolf and his elegantly pillared front door.

Of course, Engels is far from the only example of the leftist firebrand whose inherited wealth insulated him from the struggles of ordinary working people. The same formula has been known to apply to those on the demotic right of the spectrum, too: the reader may have his or her own list of candidates for inclusion among the ranks of what could be called champagne populism. Oscar Wilde perhaps put this seeming paradox best when—in an 1891 essay acknowledging that his vision of a “happy realm, peopled by an intelligent and egalitarian citizenry” might be quixotic—he wrote: “It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. That is why it is worth carrying out.”

Nonetheless, it says something for the duality of man’s capacity for passionate altruism and his eternal search for material gratification that the principal architect of The Communist Manifesto might also be a gourmand and oenophile with a particular fondness for the traditional Christmas turkey dinner, rounded off by a generous helping of what he called “tipsy-cake,” and an affectionate squeeze, if not more, of any woman incautious enough to be caught under the mistletoe. “It is absolutely essential that you get out of boring Brussels and come to Paris,” he once wrote in this last context to a colleague in the proletarian struggle. “If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes [ladies, as the jargon of the day had it, of doubtful reputation], well and good!”

A Comfortable Beginning

Engels was born on November 28, 1820, in the Prussian town of Barmen, then the home to a large steel-plating industry whose chimneys “covered the place in a permanent cloud of sulfurous smoke like the portals of hell,” he later wrote. The local factories blasted night and day; the clang of heavy presses “made a thought-annihilating thunder,” while the nearby stockyards “sent up a thick reek, wooden shacks standing beside animal swamps which bubbled and stank like stewing tripe.” Several political journalists perhaps overextended themselves in seeking to explain Engels’s adult work in terms of a sustained childhood trauma—his “question[ing] the whole connection between man’s material self-advancement and his higher obligation to others,” in the assessment of the British historian Malcolm Robinson.

Within these constraints, the boy grew up in comfortable if not positively bourgeois circumstances, in a “spacious villa,” as one visitor put it, “faced with a front of cut stone and in the best architectural style.” There was no family drunkenness, no grinding poverty, no tyrannical local schoolmaster or abusive parish priest to satisfy the biographer’s traditional fetish for his subject’s deprived childhood or troubled journey to the top. Instead, Engels was cocooned in a happy, churchgoing brood of eight children who went horseback riding and played the piano.

Without delving too far into the briar patch of psychiatry, it’s possible to guess that Friedrich, like many precociously intelligent children, came to question the moral guardrails defining the limits of acceptable behavior. “He has become more polite, outwardly, but in spite of severe chastisements, not even the fear of punishment seems to teach him unconditional obedience,” Engels senior wrote exasperatedly of his teenage son. The boy was a quick study, with a gift for languages—he eventually spoke nine of them—but who seems to have sensed from an early age that there might be more to life than the relentless pursuit of money tempered only by the spiritual refreshment of the local Calvinist church, “where the minister thrashes about in the pulpit, stamps like a cavalry horse and shouts so that the windows resound and the people in the street tremble.” He was always of two minds on religious matters, accepting that there was room for a “divine teaching that can stand the test of reason” while also arguing against a belief system characterized by the staples of nineteenth-century Protestant discourse, predestination and damnation.

Some forty years later, Engels told a visitor to one of his regular Sunday afternoon parties at his English home that he had always appreciated the “egalitarian” aspects of Christianity and was “profoundly grateful for the human associations I made during my years of compulsory worship.” It was perhaps in the gradual disavowal of some of the church’s traditional pieties, rather than in a wholesale rejection of man’s quest for the proper relationship with his Maker, that the myth of Engels’s “atheism” took hold among a later generation of communist historians. Nonetheless, it was enough to contribute to a growing rift with his orthodox-minded father. “Were it not for my mother, who has a rare fund of humanity, and whom I really love,” Engels wrote in early adulthood, “it would not occur to me for a moment to make even the most paltry concession to my bigoted and despotic old man.”

Thus the stage was set for a collision between Engels’s marked enjoyment of la dolce vita and a pronounced aversion to the alignment between the spirit of capitalist enterprise and church authority that he saw as his paternal legacy. The revolutionary mood of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, with political upheavals in more than fifty states, threw floodlight on a personal drama already well under way.

Dark Satanic Mills

It’s a curious notion that without Manchester there would have been no Soviet Union, but it was in that town’s proverbial dark Satanic Mills (William Blake coining the phrase in 1804) that Engels first found definite political direction. “The English are the nation of praxis, more than any other. . . . England is to our century what France has been to the previous one,” he wrote shortly after assuming his position at the firm of Ermer & Engels. We can already glimpse some of the young magnate-dissident’s evolution in his early journalism of the years 1840–42, which he published under the alias “Oswald” to avoid any possible embarrassment to his family. The French philosopher and founder of Labor Zionism Moses Hess (whose daughter Engels later seduced) was present to witness the birth pangs of Friedrich’s ideological conversion. Hess wrote that his young friend had been a “ ‘first-year’ revolutionary” when he had called in to see him while on his way to Manchester, but within a short time had relaunched himself as “an extremely eager communist.”

Engels’s complicated double life as a fiscally conservative factory manager and nascent social revolutionist took on new complexity once he settled in Britain. Shortly after his arrival, he went into print for the first time as a political economist in order to take his adopted country to task for its seemingly “insatiable” quest for colonies—“You have civilized the ends of the earth to win their terrain for the deployment of your vile avarice”—and emphasis on the permanent material enrichment of its merchant classes. “The middle orders must increasingly disappear until the world is divided into millionaires and paupers, into large landowners and poor farm labourers,” Engels wrote, in terms that might well have been appropriated by a Democratic presidential hopeful in 2020.

Meanwhile, this same scourge of Victorian mercantile values and the exploitation of the laboring classes soon befriended a nineteen-year-old lathe operator at Ermen & Engels named Mary Burns. She was Irish and illiterate but evidently met his stringent aesthetic requirements of a partner. “I do not remember to have seen one [other] single, tall, well-built girl; they are all short, dumpy, and badly-formed, decidedly ugly in the whole development of the figure,” he later recalled of the firm’s female workforce. Their relationship lasted twenty-one years—during the course of which he stepped out with “literally scores” of other women, to Mary’s evident approval—until her death in 1863. They never married.

Engels was a man of some energy and profound contradictions, then, often too restless to sit at table through a meal, instead “roaming around the room like a caged beast, shouting out about the economic inequities and social dislocation of the capitalist system,” to quote one Manchester guest. (Perhaps you had to be there.) In due course, Engels also formed a close relationship with Mary’s younger sister Lizzy, and the three of them kept home together. When polite society, and the Engels family, complained about this ménage, he simply established two separate households, one where he met business associates, and the other where he enjoyed the pleasures of the Burns sisters’ company.

Another Manchester acquaintance left behind an account of Engels in his mid-twenties as having an “unrivalled touch with mayors, men of affairs, priests and poets alike,” all of whom he treated with free-flowing political conversation and equally copious draughts of fine wine. “He buzzed around like a benign little bee, merrily introducing people who would otherwise never normally have met, roaring with laughter, always with the injunction, ‘Drink, young man.’ When he felt like a change, he would excuse himself abruptly with the remark that he was taking a brisk walk of ‘one and a half German miles’ up and down the local hills, after which he would return, refreshed, for more Bordeaux.”

We get an even more acute glimpse of Engels’s life in his early Manchester years from a letter his mother, Elise, wrote him in September 1848. She had just read an account that alluded both to his domestic arrangements and to some of his more outspoken journalism. “Now you have really gone too far,” the scandalized Mrs. Engels reproached her twenty-seven-year-old son. “So often have I begged you to proceed no further but you have paid more heed to other people. . . . God alone knows what I have felt and suffered of late.”

This piteous lament would have wrung tears from a stone, and when Engels went on to tour revolutionary France later that fall he seemed more interested in chronicling the local scenery than in fomenting civil unrest. “The avenue is lined with elms, ashes, acacias, or chestnuts,” he wrote in his journal of a walk in the woods. “The valley floor comprises luxuriant pastures and fertile fields.” Elsewhere, his private notes of the visit read like those of a man on an agreeable European wine tour. “What a diversity, from Bordeaux to Burgundy . . . With a few bottles one can experience every intermediate state from a Musard quadrille to the Marseillaise, and then finally with a bottle of champagne drift again into the merriest convivial mood in the world!”

Mrs. Engels did not know it at the time, but Friedrich had by then made the acquaintance of a luxuriantly bearded, twenty-four-year-old freelance journalist, similarly born into an impeccably bourgeois German family, who was starting out as a political reporter in Paris. Their first encounter left both parties mutually unimpressed, Engels later recalling that he had viewed the struggling writer “with suspicion—it was all distinctly chilly,” although they later came to find that they shared the belief that “science” ultimately would replace “superstition” and that in this new spirit of enlightenment man would cease to exploit man, leaving human beings free to achieve a “radical equality” that nonetheless allowed for a generous degree of individual license. For the time being, the two young men at least agreed to stay in touch. In light of later events, Mrs. Engels might not have entirely approved of her son’s new correspondent. His name was Karl Marx.

Keeping Up Appearances

Like Engels, Marx was not poor. His people were vineyard owners and lawyers, with a healthy cash reserve from a family tobacco business in the background. Marx’s recurrent liquidity crises in later life, writes his biographer David McLellan, “resulted less from real poverty than a desire to preserve appearances, coupled with an inability to husband his economic resources.” He enjoyed expensive wines and the finest tailoring, and was one of those people who spend money the second they have it, if not before. In retrospect, Engels was perhaps too fastidious to be a truly popular journalist, once admitting, “I eschew fashion and tittle-tattle.” Marx, by contrast, wrote in a sort of out-of-body frenzy, as if scratching an incessant itch, covering everything from politics to the stage to the technical workings of the stock market, from where to buy the best brands of cigars to the development of professional soccer and back again to the oppression of the masses. Engels wrote with a machine-like precision, marshaling his facts like so many soldiers on parade, in a script as neat as print. With Marx it all came out in a furious, emetic scrawl, typically composed in red ink, and apparently written in short bursts of energy around the edges of the paper, so that one had to turn the page through 360 degrees to read all of it. Much has been made of the fact that it was often only Engels who could fathom Marx’s meaning.

Since some three hundred books, not to mention all the scholarly articles, impassioned PhD theses, and a continuing worldwide internet exchange of views are all available on the subject, it’s perhaps best to be brief on the topic of 1848’s The Communist Manifesto. The project began life in the unlikely setting of the Red Lion pub in London’s Great Windmill Street, set among the bright lights of the city’s theater district, where the somewhat threadbare exiled committee of the German Workers’ Education Association invited Engels and Marx, as the only two practicing journalists present, to draw up a charter of their party’s beliefs in the “at present remote” chance they might find themselves in a position of political power. Engels provided much of the early material for this in a long article he called Principles of Communism. He seemed to acknowledge his own delicate balancing act in life when he wrote there: “Precisely that quality of large-scale industry which in present society produces all misery and all trade crises is the very quality which under a different social organization will destroy that same misery and those disastrous fluctuations.”

Marx ran with this central thesis while sitting in a cigar-fueled, five-day journalistic binge in the upstairs room of another tavern, coining the arresting opening line (“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism”) and the rousing climax (“Working men of all countries, unite!”) and relying on Engels for much of the 12,400 words in between. According to the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the result was an “irresistible mixture of utopian confidence, moral passion, hard-edged analysis, and dark literary eloquence,” which in time combined to make it “the best-known and the most widely translated pamphlet of the nineteenth century.” Certainly to review the books, essays, monographs, and other, more ad hoc projects inspired by the Manifesto today is not to note a revival of interest but simply to let down a bucket into a bottomless well. That was not entirely the case at the time of its original publication. It enjoyed a few hundred sales among its more partisan readership but failed to conspicuously influence the European political upheavals that broke out at intervals from February 1848 to March 1849. In short order, Marx went back to a precarious life of freelance journalism, which he helped to sustain with an inheritance from his father, and Engels resumed his own place on the managerial side of the ongoing class struggle, in time taking sole control of the family business in Manchester.

For the remaining thirty-five years of his life, Marx owed much to Engels’s patronage. On what might be called the polemical level, they continued to exchange technical data on matters such as the distinction between fixed and variable capital and on the through line of all their published work: the exploitation of the labor power of the proletariat. “Let me say a word or two about what will, in the text, be a lengthy and complex affair, so that you may let me have your opinion on it,” Marx wrote, while preparing the first volume of 1867’s Das Kapital. But Engels didn’t just provide his friend with somewhat abstract ideas about the abolition of private property and the transition to a socialist society. There was a steady flow of material assistance, too. The postman was soon hauling sackloads of cash, coins, money orders, stamps, and even comestibles like wine and cake from the offices of Ermen & Engels in Manchester to Marx’s exile two hundred miles to the south in London. It may be that no other economic theorist in history has written so freely about “money” while so persistently short of the stuff. “I assure you that I would rather have had my thumb cut off than write again to you. . . . It is truly soul-destroying to be dependent for half one’s life,” Marx opened one representative letter. Another read: “You have already helped us out too often. But can you spare something? The baker warned us that there’d be no more bread after Friday.”

There was a more narrowly personal aspect to the friendship, too, most obviously when it came to Marx’s baroque love life. This made even Engels’s ménage seem positively restrained by comparison. Fathering a son with his young housemaid, Marx essentially palmed off the boy (whom he named Freddy) onto Engels. The lad grew up to become a London toolmaker and a member of his local Labour Party. In later years, Freddy’s own son remembered going with his father to visit Engels in his home, “always using the tradesman’s entrance” to do so. How much actual money and other support changed hands between Engels and Marx’s progeny over the years may never be known. However, the compact certainly saved Marx a good deal of grief both with his wife and those of his political rivals who would have seized on any breath of sexual scandal to discredit him. No wonder he came to admiringly call Engels “the General.”

A Portfolio to Die For

Social revolution was far from the only pressing matter on Engels’s mind as he assumed greater day-to-day control of the business in Manchester. He was not only doing increasingly well as a wage slave, as he called himself, but, like Marx before him, he soon allowed himself a few transactions on that bastion of raw capitalism, the stock market. “I, too, have shares, buying and selling from time to time,” Engels told the German socialist Eduard Bernstein. He read The Economist for its investing tips, explaining, “I am not so simple as to look to the socialist press for advice on these operations—anyone who does so will burn his fingers, and serve him right!” On his death, Engels left the modern equivalent of $4 million in a portfolio of shares in everything from his local gas company to the British government’s colonial investment fund.

These were years when Engels also extended his reputation for leading a life of epicurean hedonism. Among other things, he particularly enjoyed fox hunting, poetry, cricket, and long evenings spent at the bar of his exclusive Manchester club. His sexual profligacy was undimmed by age, although, in another of those philosophical contradictions that constitute the basic fabric of his life, the great nonbeliever agreed to marry his longtime companion Lizzy Burns according to the rites of the Church of England shortly before her death at the age of fifty-one in 1878. To those who knew him only as the eminently clubbable manager of the family firm, it would have strained belief to learn that he was the same man who wrote The Peasant War in Germany or its successor, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, among other saber-rattling essays—a bit like discovering in later years that your local temperance minister was sneaking off at night to rock with Black Sabbath. Engels visited the United States in 1888 and was favorably impressed by the raw vitality and entrepreneurial spirit of the place. “He is a wonderful fellow, bright and energetic,” he reported of his nephew Willie Burns, who had emigrated from Manchester. “He is doing well, works for the Boston & Providence Railroad, gets $12 a week. He’s just the lad for a country like America.”

Engels died of throat cancer in London on August 5, 1895, at the age of seventy-four. He was characteristically ebullient to the end, writing to Marx’s daughter Laura: “Here’s to your good health in a bumper of lait de poule, fortified by a dose of cognac vieux.” (Convinced that she had nothing left to give to the Movement, Laura later committed suicide.)

Does Engels matter today? Regrettably, yes, in the sense that the Communist Manifesto lent a veil of intellectual respectability to authoritarian monsters, large and small, from Lenin to Papa Doc Duvalier and beyond. It might be argued, too, that between them Engels and Marx were all too prophetic in writing that “exploitation of the world-market” would in time give “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” The ever-increasing pace of automation, and particularly of artificial intelligence, would similarly seem to fit the Manifesto’s prediction of “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” So, a writer-philosopher of unusual economic insight and political perception: check. A selfless devotee of Marx and of what he saw as the greater good of the cause: check. An employer who knew the inmost workings of Victorian capitalism from both sides of the class divide: check. Living proof of man’s essential humanizing contradictions: also check.

Engulfed as we are by the moronic inferno of our modern city streets, most Americans have little time for history, and even less for an apparently subsidiary nineteenth-century German pamphleteer. Such people would do well to heed the words attributed to Engels when describing the final crisis that would ultimately befall the prevailing order: “All that is solid [will] melt into air, all that is holy will be profaned,” he wrote, “and man will at last be compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” You could skip the word “sober” and be left with a well-nigh perfect picture of our Western democracies in this year of 2020.

­­Christopher Sandford is the author of many books, including Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain and The Man Who Would Be Sherlock: The Real-Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.

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