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 human costs of capitalism. Das Kapital’s accounts of limbs broken, ill-health and misery wrought by industrialisation come straight from the evidence of Engels. “As far as concerns the period from the beginning of large-scale industry in England down to the year 1845 I shall only touch upon this here and there, referring the reader for fuller details to Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class,” Marx wrote. “The fullness of Engels’ insight into the nature of the capitalist method of production has been shown… since the publication of his book.”
The pain of Engels’s day job in the realm of “accursed commerce” was relieved by a love life centred around two Irish sisters, Mary and Lizzy Burns. Under their influence, he made another vital contribution to Marxism: the critique of colonialism. By the 1870s, it was Engels who had conceived the Marxist vision of proletarian-led resistance which would come to inspire the politics of the Communist Party of India, the ANC in South Africa and many other anti-imperial resistance movements.
What Engels also delivered was an indicator from behind enemy lines of the coming crash. After the failure of the 1848 European revolutions, both men had concluded that communism’s best chance lay with a climactic economic rupture brought about by capitalism’s inherent instability. And from within the very apex of global finance—the mills, counting houses and Royal Exchange of “Cottonopolis”—Engels reported back on the prospects of just such a collapse. In 1856, he thought it imminent. “This time there’ll be a dies irae such as has never been seen before; the whole of Europe’s industry in ruins, all markets over-stocked… all the propertied classes in the soup, complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and profligacy to the nth degree.” And he was right: over-production in the textile markets combined with an unexpected hike in raw material costs led to a collapse of confidence in the cotton industry, then a run on the banks and a spate of insolvencies, a situation in some ways not unlike Britain today. During the 1860s cotton famine, he was equally enthusiastic: “One fine day it’s bound to be the turn of the banks, and that’d be the end of the matter.”
Of course, matters rarely end quite so easily. Nevertheless, Engels remained convinced of the catastrophic instability—the inherent contradictions—of capitalism, and he made sure Marx’s work reflected such thinking. As editor of Volume III of Das Kapital, first published in 1894 some 11 years after Marx’s death, Engels gave himself free rein to ensure precisely that. In Part III, “The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall,” Marx had outlined how profits tend to decline as labour-saving technology progressively reduces the scope for extracting profits from the labourers themselves. Marx deduced that falling profitability meant capitalism itself was vulnerable. But whereas Marx’s original manuscript referred to the “shaking” of capitalist production, Engels spoke far more definitively of its “collapse.”
Engels never took much credit for his contributions to Marxism. He saw Marx as the “first fiddle,” the genius who “stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us.” And “how can anyone be envious of genius?” he asked, “it’s something so very special that we, who have not got it, know it to be unattainable right from the start.” But such modesty is no excuse for us junking Engels. As the crisis of capitalism unearths a new enthusiasm for scientific socialism, let us look afresh at the life and work of the man who did so much to bring Marx’s post-capitalist creed to light. In doing so, we will find an even more rewarding legacy.