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The first Marxist

Friedrich Engels was Karl Marx’s capitalist deputy. Though his friend’s vision has failed, it would be a pity if their quest for justice is abandoned, writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2009 22:20 IST

Marxism, as an actual system of governance, has reached a cul-de-sac. Yet, maybe because we live in such a troubled world, with collapsing banks, rising unemployment and bleak global growth, there is a sudden rush of interest in other systems and ideas which would have been given short shrift a decade ago. A book that exemplifies this interest is Tristram Hunt’s new biography, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. This gripping book captures beautifully the romance and passions of 19th century revolutionaries, utopians and socialists. In the centre of this universe of struggle and hope were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This was a century teeming with people each with his or her idea for a better world — Eugen Duhring, Moses Hess, Marx’s daughters, Eleanor and Laura, their husbands, Edward Aveling and Paul Lafargue, Karl Kautsky, Carl Schorlemmer and many others.

This large cast of characters had, however, only one sponsor, the rich industrialist Friedrich Engels. Generous to a fault, Engels doled out money that he earned in large quantities as a capitalist in Manchester, to many of these activists and to the large Marx clan. Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, was the author of the book The Right to be Lazy; and going by his frequent appeals to uncle Engels for money, he probably lived by it.

For Engels, one of the most difficult periods of his life was the 19 years he spent running a textile and cotton business so that he could provide livelihood for Marx, who was writing his magnum opus, Das Kapital, so that one day all capitalist enterprises like the one he ran could be brought to a halt. In his own words, “One can perfectly well be at one and the same time a stock exchange man and a socialist and, therefore, detest and despise the class of stock exchange men.”

Engels’s generosity extended beyond money. Karl Marx, who was stably and happily married, had one romantic lapse with his housemaid, Helene Demuth, which resulted in the birth of Freddy Demuth. Admitting this to his society would have caused Marx great embarrassment. So his eternal friend, Friedrich, quickly stepped in and claimed paternity.

It is impossible to read this book without feeling admiration for Engels, despite his many contradictions. He was intellectually gifted but happy to play second-fiddle to Marx’s genius, skilled in business but with little taste for it, passionately concerned about the plight of the poor and grim lives of the working classes but with a naturally-cheerful
disposition. In many ways, he lived a life surrounded by tragedy. Marx’s death would leave him shattered, though he would find consolation in taking on a father-like role to Marx’s daughters.

Both Laura and Eleanor would, eventually, commit suicide.

All this drama, political and personal, makes this book a fascinating read but, more importantly, the book helps us understand why Marxism, for all its intellectual fire-power, had to fail. Knowledge and science are important in studying society and economy, but, when one is driven by too clear a sense of certainty, there is the risk that knowledge will be replaced by the illusion of knowledge and dogma will dislodge the temper of science. This is what happened. Engels was sure, repeatedly, from 1848 to the time of his death in 1895, that the revolution was round the corner. Each time he was convinced that the “science of society” that he and, even more, Marx had discovered predicted this. Engels believed that Marx had discovered truths about the trajectory of human society the same way that Charles Darwin had uncovered the evolution of species and great scientists had chalked out the paths of the stars.

While the deep and almost-religious empathy that Marx and Engels had for the suffering of the poor and the dehumanised lives of the workers was moving, their claims to science would never stand up to scrutiny. Even within economics, the marginalist theory that emerged in the late 19th century from the pens of Leon Walras, Stanley Jevons, Vilfredo Pareto and others, would, with all its faults, dominate Marx’s paradigm. Neither would succeed in explaining the unfolding of humankind’s complicated history but the new marginalist economics would provide a deductive system with a mathematical structure which, even if it were to be eventually replaced, could be the mainspring of economic science in a way that Marxism could not be.

Marx’s analysis never paid enough attention to the structure of individual incentives that could make the more utopian system that he, along with Engels, had tried to conceptualise viable. Not surprisingly, socialism as conceived of by Marx has a tendency to mutate, with the government getting captured by powerful groups and lobbies, as happened in the USSR. Jose Saramago was right, when he remarked about the fall of the Soviet Union, that it was not a socialist State that fell but a perverse capitalism.

While Marxism as science has failed, it will be a pity if the idealism and the quest for justice that was the moving force behind the lives of Engels and Marx were also abandoned. As Hunt notes at the end of the book, Engels was “convinced that there was a more dignified place for humanity in the modern age. For him and Marx, the welcome abundance offered by capitalism deserved to be distributed through a more equitable system. For millions of people around the world that hope still holds.”

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Chairman, Department of Economics, Cornell University

The views expressed by the author are personal