Engels: The Male Chauvinist Feminist April 29, 2009Posted by Garibaldy in Books, Feminism, History, Marxism.
Tristan Hunt in today’s Guardian has a piece promoting his new biography of Friedrich Engels. Surprisingly for something written on Engels by this champion of New Labour, it is actually not an entirely uninteresting article, discussing as it does the contradictions between Engels’ principles and his behaviour. Few of us could stand up to such scrutiny, especially by anachronistic standards, and in the article Hunt seeks to judge Engels by the standards of his own time. The article, like the book, seeks to restore the human element to Engels. Here is the man himself writing to Marx
It is absolutely essential that you get out of boring Brussels for once and come to Paris, and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you,” Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Marx in 1846. “If I had an income of 5000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces. If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes [prostitutes], well and good!”
Hunt’s article essentially discusses Engels’ responsibility for the creation of modern feminism through his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, describing how that work opened the way for a new understanding of the oppression of women. Hunt’s account ends with a sting in the tail about whether we should be too smug about some of Engels’ own attitudes
Few great thinkers are able to live out their ideals, and Engels was more contradictory than most. But the personal is not always political; philosophy exists beyond the person. And if much of Engels’ life no longer appears very enlightened, in an era when part-time male workers earn some 36% more than their female equivalents and one third of British women in work take home less than £100 per week, his insights into the economic foundations of sexual inequality seem as relevant as ever.
As for the book, it is in shops (though the official release date is tomorrow), and Waterstone’s had it at five pounds less than the £25 official price. Interested though I may be in the topic, and pleasantly surprised by this article as I am, I doubt I’ll be shelling out given that, unlike Robert Service in his Times review and Roy Hattersley in his Guardian review, I have my doubts about Hunt’s competence to discuss Engels’ political thought. However, with
International Women’s Day May Day approaching, Hunt has still raised important issues that we especially ought not to neglect.