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Proletarian issue 32 (October 2009)
Book: The Frock-Coated Communist, the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt *
A scurrilous ‘biography’ of Engels by a New Labour ‘historian’.
The ‘historian’ Tristram Hunt is a clean-cut, good-looking bloke with a host of imposing academic qualifications (Trinity, Cambridge; University of Chicago). He now teaches at Queen Mary College, University of London, writes for the broadsheets and regularly turns up as a TV personality-pundit. To add even more bourgeois lustre to this persona, his father was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 2000; and in 2007, Tristram Hunt stood for selection in a safe Labour seat in Derby, only to be pipped at the post by the even more oleaginous Stephen Twigg.

Disappointed as he was, the ambitious Tristram Hunt remains a new Labour man, hostile not only to Marxism, but even to the labour movement. During the current world catastrophe, he is to be found in the pages of the Guardian pontificating against ‘Islamo-fascism’ and in favour of the zionist state, while playing to the softest of the soft and confused left by showing an interest in radical martyrs of the past and some mild concern for the present-day victims of a market economy he refuses to see beyond.

So what is this hodge-podge of a Blairite ‘thinker’ doing writing a biography of Frederick Engels? Easy-peasy. He is making a mockery of Engels’ life and work, that’s what; and he is doing it with a will and a purpose.

The lackey-historians of the bourgeoisie have long attacked Lenin, Stalin and the achievements of the Soviet Union, and recently (July 2009) the representatives of the bourgeoisie sitting in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have felt its propaganda strong enough to actually pass a resolution equating Stalinism with Nazism.

After such an outrage, a further bourgeois attack on the actual founders of socialism was inevitable. Make no mistake, Tristram Hunt’s nasty little book is but another in the series of onslaughts on Engels and Marx, not to mention Lenin, Stalin and Mao, masquerading as honest bourgeois scholarship.

Tristram uses the snake-like technique of attacking Engels by purporting to make him ‘more human’, to give him an honest ‘warts and all’ profile. Superficially, that sounds fair enough, and when it comes to saying that Engels liked a drink, went fox hunting and earned a good living managing one of his father’s factories, it is in truth fair enough. However, when it comes to (for example) accusing Engels of actually raping Alicia Hess (wife of Moses Hess), we have to question Tristram’s sources as well as his motives. (Incidentally for the ‘rape’ of Alicia Hess, Tristram Hunt has no sources!)

Throughout the book, Hunt works with innuendo and confabulation, from the very first page where he tells us that Engels had a taste for “expensive women”, and just a little later where Hunt implies through the technique of ‘guilt by association’ that Engels had the same interest in pornography as Edgar Bauer, Hunt impressionistically, but effectively (to those who do not know much – if anything – about Engels) paints a picture of Engels as a self-indulgent Lothario, or, to use Hunt’s exact words, “Engels was a sexual predator”.

The book contains a constant character assassination that pervades each and every statement made about Engels’ actual work. There is not time and space here to ‘toothcomb’ the whole of Hunt’s magnum opus, but a look at his ‘discussion’ around The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State reveals the full putrid nature of his agenda.

Hunt tells us apropos of The Origin that, far from being interested in women’s equality, Engels was actually a deep misogynist. A pretty startling accusation, and one you would think a historian might like to support with evidence. Yet what evidence of Engels’ misogyny does Hunt give us? Well, he tells us in passing (and without any explanation) that Engels used to call Annie Besant, Marion Crawford and Gertrude Guillaume Schack, “Mother Besant”, “Mother Crawford” and “Mother Schack” respectively.

What Hunt does not tell his readers is that Engels had very good reasons for disdaining the Malthusian anti-socialist Annie Besant, (ii) the bourgeois-patriotic journalist Marian Crawford, and even the Contagious Diseases Acts-obsessed Gertrude Guillaume Schack.

Without giving any details of Engels’ ideological differences with these three women, Hunt just tells us that Engels’ dislike of them was pure misogyny. Hunt then goes on to give the coup de grace and tell us that Engels was opposed to the women’s suffrage movement. What he carefully omits is that Engels’ position was the same as every other Marxist, or even socialist, at the time. Engels was a supporter of adult suffrage for all men and women, but he was certainly opposed to the demands of the bourgeois women’s suffrage movement, since Millicent Fawcett and her followers were only demanding women’s suffrage on the same property qualification basis then in operation for male voters.

Hunt, however, is well aware that he is not addressing a historically knowledgeable readership. His book is aimed at a liberal lefty, well-intentioned but relatively historically ignorant audience, who will be confused by Hunt’s description of Engels as a misogynist, opposed to women’s suffrage, and who will therefore have their previous or potential respect for one of the founding fathers of socialism undermined by such accusations.

And that, in a nutshell, is actually the aim of Hunt’s book. It is a deliberate hatchet job and it is relentless. Hunt even mentions some passing remarks Engels made against the legalisation of prostitution, since he knows this is an issue which befuddles lefty-liberal thinking now. To further put the boot in, Hunt also tells us he finds Engels’ remarks particularly ironic seeing as Engels spent so much of his youth in brothels!

A double whammy for the modern progressive audience Hunt is addressing, which is firmly against brothel frequenting, but confusingly quite often in favour of legalising prostitution. Nowhere, of course, does Hunt explain why Engels thought prostitution should be criminalised, just as nowhere does he give any evidence for Engels’ alleged brothel creeping.

It might be argued that Tristram Hunt does give some respect to Engels, as he has no truck with the idea that after Marx’s death, when Engels set to editing Marx’s papers into volumes II and III of Kapital, he deviated from Marx’s thinking, but Tristram Hunt’s game here is not to give credit to Engels but to besmirch Marx by association. Unable (at the moment) to reinvent Marx and Engels as baby-eating mass murderers (in the manner of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent infamous attack on Stalin in The Red Tsar), our bourgeois historian reinvents not just Engels, but Marx too, as a constant drunk and “shameless philanderer” (no less).

Oh, certainly (Tristram assures us), Engels did make the odd maybe even semi-original observation – Engels’ argument about the Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, for example, and there is something to be said for the work Engels put into his 1844 Condition of the Working Class in England! Hunt even concedes that Marx and Engels’ dissolute hearts might even have been in the right place (sometimes) and that they even made some very fair comment about globalisation.

Hunt further concedes (so magnanimously) that it would be unfair to blame either Marx or Engels for the doings of their “illegitimate acolytes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere”, but the over-riding message of Tristram Hunt’s oeuvre is that both Marx and Engels were a couple of psychological misfits, while their ideology is a product of its time and now only amounts to a historical curiosity – interesting, but irrelevant to the twenty-first century; a bit like John Wesley and Methodism, just (especially in Engels’ case) much sexier.

No wonder the book has been greeted with such a fanfare: it is an opening shot in bourgeois history’s latest drive to make Marxism, not threatening like Lenin, Stalin and the Soviet Union, but merely ridiculous.

And it is very easy to imagine The Frock-Coated Communist being made into a TV serial on similar lines to the recent Desperate Romantics about the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with a young Marx and Engels leaping around full frontal.(iii)

Make no mistake about it, The Frock Coated Communist is not just a bad book, it is a deliberate, carefully thought out piece of anti-socialist propaganda; its agenda is to undermine hope, to present Marx and Engels as buffoons, and to convince its readers that socialism and communism are at best a pipe dream, and at worst a nightmare.

Remember the name Tristram Hunt; there is a great future for him as a hired scribe, and we will be hearing more from him.


* The Frock-Coated Communist, the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt, pub Allen Lane. (In USA, Marx’s General, the Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, pub Metropolitan Books.)

(ii) Annie Besant associated herself with the socialist and trade-union movements during a four-year period, 1885-9. Before 1885, she was hyper-Malthusian and anti-socialist; after 1889, she was a Theosophist and just hyper.

(iii) Tristram Hunt repeats the canard that Marx fathered a baby with Helene Demuth (the Marxes’ maid-housekeeper, and later Engels’ maid-housekeeper). This unsubstantiated rumour was put in motion by Louise Freyberger (first wife of Karl Kautsky) in 1898 once everyone concerned (Engels, Marx and Helen) was safely dead and unable to refute it. The rumour gained a purchase with some bourgeois historians who wanted to reinvent the hen-pecked Marx as something more akin to Che Guevera. Tristram Hunt uses it to blacken Marx as a Deadbeat Dad (not a good 21st century image).
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