Short Fuse: Homage to a Champagne Communist

When discussing Friedrich Engels’s lament for lobster salad, Tristram Hunt dubs him “the original champagne communist,” but his biography is far from a damning portrayal.

Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt. Henry Holt & Company, Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $32.

Reviewed by Harvey Blume

9780805080254Among the most memorable words Karl Marx ever wrote — up there with “A specter is haunting Europe” and “Workers of the world unite” — are these, on the advantages of the world that communist revolution would bring about: “Communist society,” he predicted, would enable “me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

This is from “The German ideology,” published posthumously but written by Marx in his twenties. The image of freedom expressed is an unmistakably youthful one, conveying more about recreation than vocation, and providing no remotely plausible basis for any society, revolutionary or not. If cattle rearing occurred only in the evening, there’d be neither beef nor dairy. If hunters and fishers were active only when the mood took them, we’d all be vegans, except that vegans would starve, too, since what Marx said about hunting and fishing was meant to apply just as strictly to farming, nut gathering, and apple picking.

This utopia of an early Marx consists of aristocratic pastimes, diversions, games. It is a vision of a global human retirement community, of our species relaxing after the terrible toil of history. If such idyllic circumstances could be achieved, what would the critic find to “criticize after dinner”?

Marx himself was not big on pastimes and played no games that we know
of except one, chess, complaining furiously when he lost, which was often. Still, it is a noteworthy footnote to the history of the Left that the Communist Manifesto was cooked up, in the 1840s, at Paris’s Cafe de la Regence, Europe’s storied chess venue. This is the setting Diderot described in “Rameau’s Nephew” and Samuel Beckett alluded to in “Murphy”; it is where Rousseau and other philosophes hammered out the intellectual framework for the French Revolution, while declaring that the unsung pawn was no less than the heart and soul of chess.

As Tristram Hunt establishes in “Marx’s General”, it was Engels who came closer than Marx, his lifetime comrade and collaborator, to realizing a life of “one thing today and another tomorrow”, though not without, as a dialectician would have to stipulate, a good deal of contradiction. While living in Manchester, where he managed the English branch of his father’s textile business, Engels owned a horse and was in good standing at “some of England’s most hunt-friendly settings,” leading the chase after foxes and hares at the head of England’s “most elevated nobility.”

Engels complained that his efforts to conform to the mores of the English gentry left him little time for revolutionary thought and practice. He complained, no less, that all the concerts and balls he was obliged to attend kept him from applying his “acknowledged gift” for mixing up lobster salad, which, “*quelle horreur*” had become “quite rusty.”

Engels lived a more various existence than Marx, more upper crust and
more lower class. While Marx sat on his butt at the British Museum, grinding out “Das Kapital”, and acquiring chronic butt complaints, such as hemorrhoids, Engels, in addition to running a factory and running down foxes, ran after working class women. One of them, Lizzy, with whom he later settled down, and on her deathbed married, was, his prized informant about working class life — as Engels, in many ways, was Marx’s.

Harvey BlumeWhen discussing Engels’s lament for lobster salad, Tristram Hunt dubs him “the original champagne communist,” but his biography is far from a damning portrayal. Hunt sees him as the more fully human of the two original Marxists, and of renewed relevance today. “From his aerie in the Manchester cotton industry,” Hunt writes, “Engels understood as few other socialists did the true face of rampant capitalism. . . . And the recent events in the world’s stock markets and banking sector have brought Engels’s critique into sharper focus.”

But there are substantial weaknesses in Hunt’s account. Hunt does a fair job of describing the various intellectual disciplines that were fused into Marxism. There was, above all, the Hegelian dialectic, Germany’s seminal contribution to Marxism. That was joined with the tradition of French revolutionary activism, and with English analyses of economics.

But Hunt never steps back to contemplate the inherent problem of such grand syntheses when bought to bear on human life. To seek a unified field theory in physics is one thing. If found, it would not lead to gulags or concentration camps, the way ersatz unified field theories of human activity seem always to do.

Hunt writes: “Was Engels responsible for the terrible misdeeds carried out under the banner of Marxism-Leninism?. . . the answer has to be no. In no intelligible sense can Engels or Marx bear culpability for the crimes of historical actors carried out generations alter, even if the policies were offered up in their honor.”

But throughout this biography, Hunt himself seems divided on this issue. He writes, for instance, about one purge of communist ranks carried out by Marx and Engels: “What the next 150 years brought in terms of expulsions, denunciations, and political purges within left-wing parties is grimly foreshadowed” in this instance. There are many examples of such foreshadowing.

Marx once dreamed about a world that allowed for going from “one thing today and another tomorrow.” The intellectual weaponry he and Engles forged for their successors led, contra their youthful hopes, to the opposite.


  1. Jeff Millett on October 16, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Thoughtful review Harvey.

    At our best we humans have a wonderful ability to dream, even of a better world. Unfortunately rather than allowing our dreams to flow and mature we often kill them by setting them in stone then defending the stone, not the dream, to the death. Dreams and ideas are our air. If we lock them down they stagnate and die to their original intent. We end up living in a world of premature dead dreams Perhaps Marks and Engels were on to something that was locked down prematurely. A manifesto can be a dreams obituary.

    That said, I’d trade some of our current crop of capitalists for a few more dreamers like Engels. Just don’t turn those dreams into dogma.

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