Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Remembering Engels, Forgetting Engels

Tristram Hunt has another piece plugging his forthcoming biography of Engels, The Frock-coated Communist, in History Today. It's not too bad actually, and suggests that Hunt's work will further illuminate the personality and help restore the humanity of Engels himself. He also defends Engels's relevance in the context of the barbarism of actually existing capitalism:

'Engels had a deep feel for the true human costs of capitalism; despite his own exploitation of the Ermen and Engels proletariat, he offered a moral critique of political economy that Marx found hard to rival. And today it is his voice that resonates most powerfully in those countries at the sharp end of global capitalism – most notably the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China. For here all the horrors of breakneck industrialisation – capitalism transforming social relations, destroying old customs and habits, turning villages into cities, and workshops into factories – display the same savagery which Engels recounted in 19th-century Europe. With China now claiming the mantle of ‘Workshop of the World’, the pollution, ill health, political resistance and social unrest prevalent, for example, in the Special Economic Zones of Guangdong Province and Shanghai appear eerily reminiscent of Engels’ accounts of Manchester and Glasgow. Compare and contrast, as the scholar Ching Kwan Lee has done, Engels’ description of employment conditions in an 1840s’ cotton mill –

"In the cotton and flax spinning mills there are many rooms in which the air is filled with fluff and dust … The operative of course had no choice in the matter … The usual consequences of inhaling factory dust are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness … Accidents occur to operatives who work in rooms crammed full of machinery … The most common injury is the loss of a joint of the finger … In Manchester one sees not only numerous cripples, but also plenty of workers who have lost the whole or part of an arm, leg or foot."

– with the testimony of a Chinese migrant worker in Shenzhen in 2000:

"There is no fixed work schedule. A 12-hour workday is minimum. With rush orders, we have to work continuously for 30 hours or more. Day and night … the longest shift we had worked non-stop lasted for 40 hours … It’s very exhausting because we have to stand all the time, to straighten the denim cloth by pulling. Our legs are always hurting. There is no place to sit on the shopfloor. The machines do not stop during our lunch breaks. Three workers in a group will just take turns eating, one at a time … The shopfloor is filled with thick dust. Our bodies become black working day and night indoors. When I get off from work and spit, it’s all black."

Friedrich Engels, a child of the Industrial Revolution, speaks now with remarkable authority and insight to our own global age of exploitation and immiseration. It is his impassioned criticisms of the market model in action which should echo down the decades. Engels is an essential part of our newly acknowledged truth.'

There is just one fatal flaw with Hunt's article summarising the life and work of Engels, and I suspect this flaw will also be found in his full biography. That is the simple truth - a truth unacknowledged by Hunt - that Engels did not just analyse and critique the capitalist system as though he was a professional sociologist - he was also a revolutionary activist who worked and laboured for its overthrow. As Tony Cliff noted, 'you cannot speak about Engels without remembering that Engels was a man of action:'

'You know what he was called in Marx’s family? He was called "The General". Why was he called that? The answer is that while Marx was writing many marvellous articles (during 1848), and so on, it was Engels who was there on the barricades. It was Engels who was fighting in the army. It was Engels, the man of action. And for the rest of his life he was a man of action.

Quite often, because he was a man of action, he lacked the clear picture that Marx gained through having been a little bit distant from events. I am not saying that theory develops just in direct relation to action. If you have a too direct relationship to the action, you do not have the distance. Marx had that distance; Engels sometimes missed it. For example, during the American Civil War, the fight between the North and the South, Engels thought that the South was going to win. Why did he think this? He put forward a whole number of reasons: the South was better organised (that is true); all the army colleges, like Sandhurst in Britain, were in the South; the best generals were in the South; the best officers were in the South; and there is no question that the South, to begin with, was doing better than the North. Yet Marx said, no question about it, the North is going to win. Why? Because wage labour is more productive than slave labour. Full stop! That is the first thing that you can notice. Therefore New York is more advanced than Texas, and therefore the North is going to win. Not only this. Look at the most oppressed section of society – the black slaves. Where did they run to and where were they running from? Did they head from the North to the South, or from the South to the North? From the South to the North. They preferred the North. So despite all Engels’ technical military expertise Marx was right about the war, while Engels was wrong.

...One good thing about Engels is that he was very active. This was when Marx was alive and, even more important, after Marx died. Between 1883 and 1895, the 12 years when he was on his own, you read again and again that revolutionaries and trade unionists from all over the world were contacting Engels to ask for advice. And Engels was absolutely generous in giving that advice. He was involved in the French socialist movement, in the German, in the Russian and, of course, in the British – in every mass movement.

He was not only an internationalist in word. He was an internationalist in practice, and you can see it from what he was reading. I have the list of what he read every day. He looked at seven daily papers, three in German, two in English, one Austrian, one Italian, and 19 weeklies in a variety of languages. Now Engels himself knew 29 languages. To read a language is much easier than to speak it. I do not say that Engels knew how to speak 29 languages, but he could read them, because he wanted to know what was happening. He wanted to know what the Russians were doing. There were only a few Russian socialists at the time, and you could not follow the movement unless you read Russian. So he studied Russian specially for that. Now that is an achievement.

His contribution and his devotion to the cause were absolutely astonishing. These can be summed up in Engels’ own words. This was his speech at Marx’s grave:

For Marx was above all else a revolutionary. His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being. Fighting was his element.

Now these words are exactly the words that fit Frederick Engels. Engels was a fighter. He was not an abstract scientist. His science was simply a weapon in the fight for socialism. The idea of unity of theory and practice is not, as it is sometimes presented, that someone writes a book – that is theory; and you read the book – that is practice. No. The unity of theory and practice is the unity of theory with the class struggle.'

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At 6:16 pm, Anonymous doug said...

I heartily recommend "Freedom and Necessity" by Steven Brust and Emma Bull where Engels figures prominently and sympathetically in this fictional tale.

At 11:28 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you think Engels, having the shared Marx's mutual understanding of the productive features of capitalist society, have thought the South would have won? Wouldn't it seem like he would have thought that the North could have had better chances in the long run, given his own critiques of political economy, and given the shared insights he likely took from Marx?

At 12:05 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Doug - cheers for the recommendation.

On Engels and the American Civil War I am not an expert on the specifics, but for Engels to have predicted a win for the South would not I think have been particularly counter to 'historical materialism'.

In any war, the likely victor cannot just be read off automatically or in a determinist fashion from whether it has the more advanced economic system. Otherwise how could for example Vietnamese peasants have defeated US Imperialism in the 1960s?

There are so many factors which decide war other than just the economic - and Engels as Cliff makes clear in the quoted piece about saw lots of factors in the South's favour etc. There is also what I think Clausewitz called 'the fog of war' - the almost random events that happen once the battle is joined that are outside the control of even the best military planners and generals.

I reckon the point Cliff is making is however that Engels read so much military theory he got a little carried away with looking at wars in a purely military fashion - and emphasised this factor over the economic/ moral factors etc. Marx could see the bigger picture perhaps because he did not have as much respect for the tactical skills of the Southern generals etc because he had not read as much about them. But this is just my hunch - any historians of the American Civil War/Marx and Engels please feel free to help explain this.

At 6:00 pm, Blogger pauly said...

I second Doug's recommendation of Freedom and Necessity; it's really a thrilling read. Also, August Nimtz's Marx, Tocqueville, and America takes up the question of Marx's analysis of the United States Civil War in detail.


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