Summer has finally reached Michigan. School is out for me this week and I am looking forward, among other projects, to reading only what I want to read for a couple months. My plan today is to go to the University library and pick this summer’s books. I have a few ideas, but will let the perusing afternoon among the stacks make the final decision. I’ve just finished Noah Trudeau’s combat trilogy on the end of the US Civil War in the East and short volume on the the friendship between Grant and Twain. I feel like I need to move out of the 19th century, but….
…There is a new biography of Engels coming out later this summer by Tristram Hunt. The book has been out for some time in England and gotten mixed, but generally favorable, reviews from the left (here, here, here and here as an example).
The problem I have with non-activists writing books on Marxists is that they never get Marxist activism. To them it is always a diversion that besmirches their object’s theoretical work with silly politics. I’ve seen this time and time again (Francis Wheen anyone?) and it is a big turn off. It is in their activism that their theory was worked out and made real. It is the essential ingredient in their lives.
Curiously the book whose English edition with an effete looking young Engels on the cover and the title “The Frock Coated Communist” has had a makeover for the US edition complete with faux cyrillic writing, a picture emphasizing Engels’ prodigious whiskers and the title “Marx’s General”. I’ll leave the reader to diagnose the commercial and cultural differences that may have led the publishers to promote the book as if it were about two different men depending on which side of the water they sell it.
Engels gets a bad rap in my opinion (from supposedly “dumbing down” Marx to the tut-tutting his active sexual life). The most maddening thing is the finger pointing through time and into the unknowable complexities of the intimate lives of Marxists like Engels highlighting supposed hypocrisies.
How many of us would look the paragon if our personal lives were opened up to comparison to our public lives? How many of us would like to see our private world under the examination of those who do not know us for judgement? How could we even trust the judgement of those who do not know us?
There are limits of course and our personal lives can reflect on our political lives. There are also hypocrisies that undermine any political presentation (like Jefferson owning slaves while he wrote “all men our created equal” as he, consensually we are sure, buggered the manacled). And there are other examples less extreme. I have yet to hear, however, an accusation, let alone proof, of any of those limits being breached by Marx or Engels.
Not living up to their own stated values? Sure; I’m guilty of that too as is every reader of this blog. In any case, I take it for granted that we are all human and such hypocrisies only affirm this. Engels was a communist and a fox hunter!? He liked to have sex with attractive Parisian women!? How shocking.
I doubt very much that anything “uncovered” or written about Engels can take away from his enormous contributions to the struggle for liberation (not least of which women’s liberation). While I love a good story of an Engels drinking bout (he might be the person in history I would most like to have dinner with), what I really appreciate about Engels is his utter devotion to the cause of the emancipation of the working class; including his monumental contributions to a vast array of social, scientific and revolutionary theory. Dude did co-author the Manifesto after all. I have a feeling, despite what may be written, it is for this that history will continue to remember him.
I’m sure I’ll read Hunt’s book, but I will probably have to wait for that definitive book on Engels that I’ve so been looking for. Note to writers and researchers: There should be a book (is there a book?) solely on Engels’ relationship with Ireland. Off to the library….