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Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engelsby Tristram Hunt
1 SIEGFRIED IN ZION
"Rejoice with me, dearly beloved Karl, that the good Lord has heard our prayer and last Tuesday evening, the 28th, at 9 pm presented us with a babe, a healthy well-shapen boy. We thank and praise Him from the fullness of our hearts for this child, and for the merciful assistance and care for mother and child during confinement." In late November 1820, after his wifes dificult labor, the Rhineland businessman Friedrich En-gels was delighted to announce to his brother-in-law Karl Snethlage the birth of his first son and namesake. Instantly anxious for the childs spiritual state, Engels also wrote of his hopes that the Lord "grants us the wisdom to bring it up well and in fear of Him, and to give it the best teaching through our example!" This prayer would go spectacularly un-answered.1
The infant Friedrich was ushered into a family and a culture that offered no inkling of his revolutionary future. There was no broken home, no lost father, no lonely childhood, no school bullying. Instead, there were loving parents, indulgent grandparents, plentiful siblings, steady prosperity, and a sense of structured familial purpose. "Probably no son born in such a family ever struck so entirely different a path from it. Friedrich must have been considered by his family as the ugly duckling, " mused Eleanor Marx in 1890, when the wounds of the Engels clan were still raw. "Perhaps they still do not understand that the duckling was in reality a swan. "2
Engelss upbringing in the Rhineland town of Barmen took place within a safe, cloistered neighborhood that resembled something of a family compound. Across the road from his home stood the detached four-story late-Baroque house his own father was born in (now the threadbare Engels-Haus museum); nearby he could see the showy mansions of his uncles Johann Caspar III and August and, dotted among them, the steaming, stinking yarn bleacheries that had funded them. Factories, workers tenements, and merchant houses mingled together in what resembled an early industrial model village. For Friedrich En-gels was delivered straight into the furnace of the nineteenth century. The historic transformations he would make his lifes work—urbanization, industrialization, social class, and technology—were there at his birth. "The factory and cottages of the esteemed family of Caspar Engels, together with the bleacheries, almost form a small semicircular city," con-firmed an 1816 report on the state of Barmens housing.3 Leading down to the Wupper River, this damp, marshy district was offcially called the "Red Brook"; in the early 1900s, it was still widely known as "Engelss Brook."
While the Engels line can be traced back to Rhineland farms of the late sixteenth century, the familys prosperity begins with the arrival of Johann Caspar I (171587), Engelss great-grandfather, in the Wupper Valley in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Exchanging agriculture for industry, Caspar was drawn to the lime-free waters of the Wup-per River—one of the tributaries of the Rhine—and the riches it promised from linen yarn bleaching. With just twenty-five thalers in his pocket and a pannier on his back (as family legend had it), he chose to settle in the tiny town of Barmen, which clings to the steep slopes lining the Wupper. An assiduous entrepreneur, he built up a highly successful yarn business, complete with a bleachery, and then a workshop for a pioneering form of mechanical lace production. When he handed over the company to his sons, it was one of Barmens largest enterprises.
Yet the commercial ethos of Caspar Engels und Söhne stood for more than just the cash nexus. In an era when gradations between workers and masters were subtler than full-throttle industrialization would later allow, the Engelses fused paternalism with profits and were widely renowned for the benevolence of their employment and refusal to use child labor. Down the generations, the Engelses provided homes, gardens, and even schools for family employees, and a granary cooperative was set up during food shortages. As a result, Engels spent his early years mixing easily with ribbon makers, joiners, and craftsmen, an experience that fostered in him a class-free ease that would serve him well in the Salford slums and communist clubs of Paris.
Johann Caspars sons had continued in the family firm, expanding operations to include the production of silk ribbons. By the time of his death in 1787, the familys combination of commercial success and high-minded philanthropy had secured them a preeminent social position within Wuppertal society: Engelss grandfather, Johann Caspar II, was appointed a municipal councilor in 1808 and became one of the founders of Barmens United Protestant Church.4 But when the business was passed on to the third generation—Engelss father and uncles—the family unity shattered. After repeated fallings out, in 1837 the three brothers drew lots to decide who would inherit the firm. Friedrich Engels senior lost and started up a new business, going into partnership with two Dutch brothers, Godfrey and Peter Ermen. There, he rapidly revealed his greater entrepreneurial gifts and his new company, Ermen & Engels, diversified from linen bleaching into cotton spinning, setting up a series of sewing thread factories in Manchester and then in Barmen and nearby Engelskirchen in 1841.
This then was the world of the merchant-manufacturer elite (the so-called Fabrikanten) within which Engels grew up, a world circumscribed by industry and commerce, civic duty and family loyalty. Of course, wealthy families like the Engelses—who lived, as one observer put it, in "spacious and sumptuous houses, of en faced with fronts of cut stone and in the best architectural styles"—were protected from the more nefarious effects of industrialization. But they could not avoid them altogether, for following the steps of Johann Caspar along the Wupper had trudged tens of thousands of workers equally determined to share in the riches of industry.
Barmens population grew from 16,000 in 1810 to over 40,000 in 1840. In Barmen and Elberfeld combined, the population topped 70,000 in 1840—roughly the same size as 1840s Newcastle or Hull. The valleys workforce consisted of 1,100 dyers, 2,000 spinners, 12,500 weavers in a variety of materials, and 16,000 ribbon weavers and trimmings makers. The vast majority did their work in modest homes and small workshops, but a new generation of sizable bleaching grounds and cotton mills was also starting up, and by the 1830s there were nearly two hundred factories operating along the valley. "It is a long, straggling town, skirting both sides of the river Wupper," a visitor noted in the 1840s. "Some parts are well-built, and are nicely paved; but the greater part of the town is composed of extremely irregular and very narrow streets. . . . The river itself is a disgusting object, being an open receptacle for all sewers, disguising the various tinctures contributed from the dyeing establishments in one murky impenetrable hue, that makes the stranger shudder
What might once have been compared with the kind of pleasant rural-industrial mix seen in the mill towns of the Pennines or Derbyshires Derwent Valley—high valleys topped with green fields and forests, bottomed out by clear, fast-running streams providing the initial water power for mills and workshops—soon came to resemble a polluted, overcrowded "German Manchester." "The purple waves of the narrow river flow sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly between smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching-yards," was how Engels would come to describe his birthplace. "Its bright red colour, however, is due not to some bloody battle . . . but simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red." From his earliest days, amid the acrid stench of workshops and bleaching yards, Engels was exposed to this witches brew of industrialization: the eye-watering, nose-bleeding pollution blanketed the intense poverty and ostentatious wealth. As an impressionable young boy, he soaked it all up.6
Beyond the industry, visitors to the Wupper Valley noticed something else: "Both Barmen and Elberfeld are places where strong religious feelings prevail. The churches are large and well attended, and each place has its own bible, missionary, and tract societies."7 Contemporary sketches reveal a forest of church steeples jostling for space in the skyline of factory chimneys. For Engels, the Wupper Valley was nothing less than the "Zion of the obscurantists." The spirit that dominated Barmen and Elberfeld was an aggressive form of Pietism, a movement within the German Lutheran (Protestant) Church that had first emerged in the late seventeenth century and stressed "a more intense, committed and practical form of Christian observance."8 As the movement developed and diversified it of en distanced itself from the formal structures and theology of the Lutheran Church and, along the Wupper Valley, allied itself with a Calvinist ethic that emphasized sin, personal salvation, and a renunciation of the world. The result was a religion of introspection that saw Gods hand at work in all the mysteries of life, as the letters that passed between Engelss parents clearly testify. In 1835, as Engelss mother, Elise, tended her dying father, her husband proffered to her the comfort of faith in Gods omnipotent mercy. "I am happy and thank God that you are coping with the illness of your beloved father in such a composed way," he wrote from the family home. "We all have good reason to thank the Lord for His guidance so far. . . . He [Elises father] has enjoyed a generally happy life full of strength and health and now the good Lord seems to want to take the old man to him gently and without any pain. What can mortal man wish for more?" Gods will could also be bathetically revealed in the most trivial occurrences. "Things dont look good for your potatoes, my dear Elise," Engels senior ominously warned his wife while she was on holiday in Ostende. "They looked so fine but now have also been infected by this disease that is spreading everywhere. . . . It has never been seen before in this form and is now appearing in almost every country like a plague." The lesson was clear: "It is almost as if God wanted to show humanity in this godless age how dependent we are on Him and how much our fate rests in His hands."9
In true Protestant fashion, the Wupper pietists subscribed to the idea of a priesthood of all believers finding salvation through unmediated individual prayer and the diffcult task of scriptural exegesis. The churches fulfilled a useful religious function, but it was through brotherhood and sermonizing, rather than celebration of the Eucharist, that they delivered their mission. Much of the psychological severity of Friedrich Engels senior can be traced to this deeply personal, of en overweening faith. And, at least to begin with, his eldest son shared it. Engels was baptized at the Elberfeld Reformed Evangelical parish church, which was "well known as an exemplary Reformed church, soundly Calvinist in its doctrine, well versed in Scripture, and reverent in worship."10 In 1837, Engels marked his confrmation with a suitably evangelical poem:
Lord Jesus Christ, Gods only son,
O step down from Thy heavenly throne
And save my soul for me.
Come down in all thy blessedness,
Light of Thy Fathers holiness,
Grant that I may choose Thee.11
The curious reverse side of Pietism was a ruthless engagement with the material realities of the world drawn from the Calvinist notion of predestination: at the dawn of time, God marked out the saved and the damned, and while no one could be certain of his or her status as chosen or condemned, one of the surest signs of election was worldly success. In true Max Weber style, the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism were hard at work among the churches and factories of the Wupper Valley. Industriousness and prosperity were signs of grace, and the most ardent pietists were among the most successful merchants—including Johann Caspar II, whose sense of prudence and sobriety dictated both his religious and his business ethos. "We have to look to our own advantage even in spiritual matters," he told his son Friedrich Engels senior in 1813. "I think as a merchant in these matters too and seek the best price, as no person with whom I might like to waste an hour on trivial things can give me back a single minute of it."12
If all time was Gods time and wasting a minute was a sin, then life was certainly not meant for enjoyment and socializing. And, indeed, the Barmen Fabrikanten displayed a Puritan-like morality that valued asceticism, studiousness, individual uprightness, and personal reserve. As Engelss first biographer, Gustav Mayer, recorded, in the early nineteenth century the evangelical parishes in Elberfeld-Barmen petitioned the government against the erection of a local theater, claiming that the allure of the stage could not coexist with industriousness in the Wupper Valley. For the pietists, "plea sure" was one of the heathen blasphemies.13 The poet Ferdinand Freiligrath condemned Elberfeld as "a cursed nest, prosaic, small-townish, somber; and reviled," and the adult Engels always recalled with a shudder its dour public culture.14 "Why, for us, the philistine Wuppertalers, Düsseldorf was always a little Paris, where the pious gentlemen of Barmen and Elberfeld kept their mistresses, went to the theatre, and had a right royal time," he told the German social democrat Theodor Cuno, before adding sourly, "But the sky always looks grey where ones own reactionary family lives."15 Such Puritan public morals were the product of a close alignment between political power and church authority. Elberfelds powerful church elders, who governed the congregations, also held sway over the municipal institutions, with their influence running through both the spiritual and the secular realms.
And the churchs power was only growing. In the wake of an agrarian crisis and economic downturn during the 1830s, the pietist message became more doctrinaire, mystical, even chiliastic. A revivalist movement took hold in the Wupper Valley, led by a charismatic preacher, Dr. Frederick William Krummacher. "He thrashes about in the pulpit, bends over all sides, bangs his fist on the edge, stamps like a cavalry horse and shouts so that the windows resound and the people in the street tremble," recorded the young Engels. "T en the congregation begins to sob; first the young girls weep, then the old women join in with a heartrending soprano and the cacophony is completed by the wailing of the enfeebled drunken pietists. . . . Trough all this uproar Krummachers powerful voice rings out pronouncing before the whole congregation innumerable sentences of damnation, or describing diabolical scenes."16
The Engelses were not such hot Protestants as that. Indeed, put of by this godly fervor, many leading Barmen families began to retreat from church activity during the 1840s to focus instead on hearth and home. Just as the evangelical revival in En gland led the way for the Victorian celebration of patriarchy and domesticity (think here of the sentimental poetry of William Cowper, the garden aesthetic of John Claudius Lou-don, or the novels of Hannah More), so in the picturesque merchant homes of Barmen there was a renewed cultural stress on the value of a tight-knit household. This vehement championing of the family unit expressed itself in an almost suburban ethic, a high-bourgeois desire to draw the curtains tight, seal of the corrupting outside world, and seek spiritual renewal in the simple pleasures of domestic ritual—reading, embroidery, pianoforte performances, Christmas celebrations, and birthday parties. "It is really nice and homely to have a piano!" Engelss father put it with almost Pooterish delight.17 In the coming years, this parlor culture would be summed up in the cutting term Biedermeier, which combined the adjective bieder, a condescending designation of plainness, with the common surname Meier to describe the middle-class visual style, literature, and values of the period.18
Despite the later sneers, this was a safe and caring if not always joyful environment for Engels, his three brothers, and his four sisters to grow up in. Best of all, their parents adored each other. "You may not believe it but I was thinking about you all day and I could not find contentment in anything in the house," Engels senior wrote to Elise, then visiting her parents in Hamm, before signing of with "a few tender words for you. . . . Look, I suddenly feel like someone head over heels in love again. In all seriousness I can feel a spot of longing under my waistcoat (the one with the mother of pearl buttons, you know it). I dont think I will be able to last the four weeks." Indeed, his correspondence from the early 1820s is replete with the most passionate protestations of love for his wife: "Truthfully, dearest Elise, my heart yearns for us to be re united, because I now feel a constant need to share everything with you."19 Engelss mother, descended from a family of an intellectual rather than a commercial bent (the van Haars boasted headmasters and philologists in their ancestry), owned a far more generous, humorous, even subversive nature than her husband. One Christmas she went so far as to give Engels a book of poetry by Goethe, a writer generally dismissed in Barmen circles as "a godless man" but for Engels "the greatest of Germans."20 Meanwhile, Elises own father, the pastor Gerhard van Haar, introduced the adolescent Engels to the legends of classical mythology, a subject that found fertile ground in his grandsons energetic imagination. "O you dear Grandfather, who always treat us so kindly," Engels began one poetic thank you note,
Always helping us when our work isnt going so smoothly,
While you were here, you told me many a beautiful story
Of Cercyon and Theseus, and Argus the hundred-eyed monster,
The Minotaur, Ariadne, and Aegeus drowned in the ocean,
The Golden Fleece, the Argonauts and Jason defiant.21
Within this comfortable setting, Engelss father is traditionally port rayed as an unhappy, rigidly religious , money-hungry philistine , thanks in no small part to his sons later, bitter characterizations. Philistine, it should be added, was a favored term of abuse that Engels had co-opted from Goethe: "A Philistine is an empty gut filled with fear who hopes that God will take pity on him." But a reading of Engels seniors letters to Elisereveals a very diferent side to the man: commercial-minded, yes, patriotic, and God-fearing, but also a loving son, doting father, and uxorious husband who shared numerous business decisions with his wife and frequently sought her advice. For all his puritanical reputation, he was also a keen musician who could play the piano, cello, and bassoon and enjoyed few things more than a family concert. Nevertheless, it was his mother to whom Engels remained close long after his acrimonious split from his father. "Were it not for my mother, who has a rare fund of humanity . . . and whom I really love," Engels wrote some years later, "it would not occur to me for a moment to make even the most paltry concession to my bigoted and despotic old man."22 If his childhood occasionally seemed to gasp for air under the weight of commerce and piety, there was also a warm foundation of music, laughter, and love.
"Friedrich had a pretty average report last week. As you know, he has become more polite, outwardly, but in spite of the severe chastisements he received earlier, not even the fear of punishment seems to teach him unconditional obedience," Engels senior wrote censoriously to Elise in August 1835 while she was back in Hamm caring for her father. "T us today I was again distressed to find in his desk a dirty book which he had borrowed from the lending library, a story about knights in the 13th century. The careless way he leaves such books about in his desk is remarkable. May God watch over his disposition, I am of en fearful for this otherwise excellent boy."23
Much to his fathers chagrin, from an early age Friedrich chafed against the pietist strictures of Barmen life. His initial tutoring was in the local Stadtschule, where intellectual ambition was generally not encouraged. At age fourteen, he was transferred to the municipal Gymnasium in Elberfeld, where he lodged with a Lutheran schoolmaster. Purportedly one of the finest schools in Prussia, the more liberal Gymnasium certainly fostered Engelss gift for languages and, under the tutelage of a Dr. Clausen ("the only one who can arouse a feeling for poetry among the pupils, a feeling which would otherwise be bound to perish miserably among the philistines of Wuppertal"), nurtured his growing interest in the myths and romance of ancient Germania. As his final school report put it, "Engels showed commendable interest in the history of German national literature and the reading of the German classics."24
Excerpted from Marxs General by Tristram Hunt.
Copyright 2009 by Tristram Hunt.
Published in First Edition 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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