Marx is enjoying a revival. But it's his sidekick who would have seen the crunch comingby Tristram Hunt / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
A little over 150 years ago, a cotton merchant watched an approaching economic storm in a state of rapture. “The American crash is superb and not yet over by a long chalk,” Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx in October 1857. “For the next three or four years, commerce will again be in a bad way. Nous avons maintenant de la chance.” Finally, the conditions for socialist revolution were ripe. With the capitalist mode of production in disarray, the working class would surely rise to the occasion.
On the farther edges of the left, much the same sentiment is at work today. While the American public has responded to the credit crunch by reaching for Ayn Rand’s libertarian dystopia, Atlas Shrugged, in Europe Das Kapital has raced to the top of the bestseller lists. In March, a niche Birkbeck College conference on “The Idea of Communism” had to be relocated to cope with audience demand. With governments, businesses and banks facing an economic hurricane born of 20 years’ free market fundamentalism, the Cassandra-like voice of Karl Marx is resonating down the decades.
But what of the co-author of the Communist Manifesto—the man who taught Marx about the fundamentals of capitalism? Marx’s stock has surged, but Engels’s credit-rating remains in the red. Marx is the daring and prescient critic of neo-liberalism; Engels ends up with all the nasty excesses of Marxist-Leninism, holding the bags of Stalin, Mao and Honecker while Marx is deftly rebranded as the acceptable, post-political sage of global capitalism.
Yet it was Engels who was the true seer of the credit crunch. Working as a partner in the Ermen & Engels sewing thread business in Manchester, he not only kept Marx and his family in a suitably middle-class manner but also provided the essential data for Das Kapital. “I have now reached a point in my work on economics where I need some practical advice from you, since I cannot find anything relevant in the theoretical writings,” Marx wrote to him in January 1858. “Since practice is better than all theory, I would ask you to describe to me very precisely (with examples) how you run your business,” began another round of queries.
Engels’s time in the mills, pubs, dank cellars and merchants’ parlours of Manchester and Salford provided Marx with his best sense of the…