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Engels: The Male Chauvinist Feminist April 29, 2009

Posted 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.


1. goodhardrant - April 29, 2009

Er, International Women’s Day approaching in another year’s time on the 8th of March as it has been since 1913? Must have been too busy reading Marx that day to attend the rallies, eh Garibaldy?


2. Garibaldy - April 29, 2009

Oops. Meant May Day


3. WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2009

Very interesting quotes, albeit very much of their time. Still, I like to think Mary Wollstonecraft was pretty influential too.


4. Garibaldy - April 29, 2009

She may well have been, though somewhat overhyped I’ve always thought.

BTW dude, any chance you can get the comments up to the start of the page again?


5. Seán Ó Tuama - April 29, 2009

Just happen to be reading the book myself at the moment. The bits on how the Burns’ sisters and their Fenian sympathies influenced Engels, are interesting.

He moved from a terrible Hegelian “non-historic” nations and even pro-colonialist position to somehting closer to a national self-determination position.

I was reminded too of how he started learning Irish and started a book on Irish history.

It strikes me overall as good biography.


6. Garibaldy - April 29, 2009

Thanks for the info Seán. Perhaps I am being too harsh. Someone quotes some of the stuff you are talking about in one of the reviews linked above. hattersley I think


7. WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2009

Oops… I see what you mean.. Give me a sec… Just watched Will Huttons prog on how crap things are going to be for the next seven years… sort of distracting…


8. Garibaldy - April 29, 2009

Thanks WBS. Makes things much easier. Didn’t see the programme. I find Hutton a bit hard to take though.


9. CL - April 29, 2009

-masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth…a horde of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps… the whole rookery furnishes such a hateful and repulsive spectacle. This race that lives.. in measureless filth and stench..must surely have reached the lowest stage of humanity.- Engels on the condition of the Irish working class in England, 1844
(hordes, swarms, rookery and pens…. hmm.)


10. Wednesday - April 30, 2009

Erm…is it actually a surprise to anyone that a man with enlightened political beliefs about women might turn out to be somewhat inconsistent on this matter where his own life is concerned? Really?


11. WorldbyStorm - April 30, 2009

And to follow on from that thought, isn’t it essential that those inconsistencies don’t detract from the essential accuracy of those political beliefs about women?


12. Remi Moses - April 30, 2009

‘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.’ Hard man to please ain’t you…you only buy books by those you agree with?


13. Garibaldy - April 30, 2009

Nope. But I only buy books I think might be worth the effort of reading. Personally, the details of Engels’ personal life -or that of Marx, or Lenin or Connolly, or whoever – are of less interest than his ideas. If someone can successfully marry the study of the two, then great. I doubt though that Hunt can do it. On the other hand, if someone like Gareth Steadman Jones, who did the excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto, were to write a biography of Marx or Engels I’d be certain to buy it, even though I would almost definitely disagree with the interpretation contained within it.


14. Garibaldy - April 30, 2009


Not surprising at all. As I said, I doubt many of us could stand up to such scrutiny on any number of things. But as you and WBS are saying, doesn’t detract from the political ideas.


15. Danger Mouse - April 30, 2009

I suppose its like all those right on socialists who go to Cuba to help the revolution but can’t help taking advantage of the fact that the young women are selling themselves for the price of a pair of jeans or a few dollars. Don’t tell the wives though!


16. harpymarx - April 30, 2009

I must prefer Alexandra Kollontai on women. And Engels reflected his own personal/political contradictions inherent in that period.


17. Terry - April 30, 2009

This Hunt chap gave an interesting talk on Engels and Ireland out in UCD – mostly on how the Burns sisters’ views influenced his – and then claiming this was an influence on subsequent Marxism-Leninism.


18. Garibaldy - April 30, 2009

Thanks for that Terry. I’d liked to have heard that argument as I’d be sceptical about it.


19. Starkadder - April 30, 2009

Wouldn’t John Stuart Mill have had just as much influence on the
feminist movement as well?

I might have a look at this book when it comes out in paperback.


20. Garibaldy - April 30, 2009

Probably more on female emancipationists at the time I’d have thought Starkadder, but not for how feminism developed in the late twentieth century.


21. Starkadder - April 30, 2009

Is the Francis Wheen book on Marx any good? Also, I’ve been
meaning to read Sheila Rowobotham’s book on Edward
Carpenter when it comes out in paperback.


22. Garibaldy - April 30, 2009

I started to read the Wheen book, but never finished it. I found it Marx for the liberal middle classes.


23. WorldbyStorm - April 30, 2009

Don’t the liberal middle classes need Marx? 🙂


24. Garibaldy - April 30, 2009

Only so they are prepared for what’s coming 😉


25. WorldbyStorm - May 1, 2009

Wheen is doing a fine job then… 🙂


26. CL - May 1, 2009

-He rode out regularly with the prestigious and costly Cheshire Hounds.- (From the Rbt. Service review)
Surely Engels cannot be forgiven for this.


Starkadder - May 1, 2009

I’ll take Oscar Wilde’s view of hunting with hounds over
Engels’, thanks.


27. CL - May 2, 2009

I thought that was GBS?
Roy Hattersley modified it in the Gdian review:
-Yet I still find something ridiculous in the hero of Soviet intellectuals following a field led by the future Duke of Westminster – the unreadable chasing the uneatable.-


28. Garibaldy - May 2, 2009

Evil former Eurocommunist and author of a forthcoming book with the same publisher as Hunt Martin Jacques has a review of Hunt’s book in the Guardian here


See this summary of reviews too



29. Terry - May 2, 2009

Basically as Hunt put it previously there was the position that colonialism would introduce capitalist development to places (Algeria, India) under earlier modes of production and laterly the position that such places would be held in underdevelopment by colonialism – that is the one familiar to us today. In regard to the influence of the Burns sisters it does seem to me that Marx and Engels were very pro-Irish Republicanism and it would be somewhat odd if the lovers of the later did not influence them in this. I think Hunt overstated his case by not focusing on the duo’s condemnation of the Clerkenwell bombing – but sure it was a one hour lecture. Also he did seem to be looking for incongruities and contradictions between Engels’ personal life and his politics – as the title of the book suggests – which is a bit pointless IMHO.

He seemed fairly uncritical of Marx and Engels though – at least on Ireland, also he was claiming that at the time of the Condition of the Working Class in England Engels was influenced by Carlyle – apparently leading to a prejudiced view of the Irish in that work (another thing which later changed greatly).

Also in regard to contemporary politics – it came up in a question – Hunt seemed pretty critical of Labour – but personally – and I might be naive in this ….one should put as much distance between ones views on contemporary politics and ones study…and it should be possible to have shit views in today’s context and produce good academic work.

Finally he mentioned Engels had 14 notebooks on Ireland – anyone know anything of the availability of these – I have only ever seen that Marx and Engels On Ireland book – the one published by Lawrence and Wishart in 71 or so.


30. Garibaldy - May 2, 2009

Thanks for that Terry. Interesting stuff. That Carlyle idea is interesting because the argument is often made that the Young Irelanders in particular were heavily influenced by Carlyle as well, who was more pro-Irish than often said. I agree with you that there is no point in looking for people’s personal contradictions if it is their ideas that matter. I’d say you’re also right about your own rubbish views not meaning producing rubbish academic work.

On the notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart has published the final volumes of the collected works, so I guess they are scattered through them somewhere, but that’s just a guess.


31. CL - May 2, 2009

The immiseration of the working class is still a controversial notion in marxian theory, but Engels, guided by Mary Burns, witnessed it first hand.
Engels was just 24 when he wrote the ‘Conditions of the English Working Class’, and his description of life in Little Ireland could be seen as racist or as depictions of how capitalism had reduced people to the condition of beasts.
He later wrote of how the invasions of the 17th century ‘transformed Ireland into a nation of outcasts’, and of how its wandering singers were hounded and eventually died out: “Their names are lost, of their poetry only fragments have survived, the most beautiful legacy they have left their enslaved, but unconquered people is their music.”
Engels visited Ireland a number of times and was keen student of Ireland’s ancient tribal land holding system. So the Burns sisters and their country played a part in the development of his thought.
Maybe this quote from Engels could be applied to Hunt’s book:
“The bourgeoisie turns everything into a commodity, hence also the writing of history. It is part of its being, of its condition for existence, to falsify all goods: it falsified the writing of history. And the best-paid historiography is that which is best falsified for the purposes of the bourgeoisie. “


32. Seán Ó Tuama - May 2, 2009

The notebooks (or parts thereof) are reproduced in Marx and Engels on Ireland,Lawrence and Wishart, I think.

The ICO also produced a pamphlet entitled “Engels: A History of Ireland to 1014” in 1965 (second edition, 1970) which appears to have the same stuff.

On the broader issue, having read Hunt’s book he makes a plausible case, but with not much proof, that the Burns sisters may have influenced the Marx-Engels position on Ireland.

But I think that he is certainly correct in saying that Engels’ position on national questions changed strongly for the better over the years. Some Marxist commentators such as Michel Lowy and Roman Rosdolsky have made similar points and critiqued the concept of “historyless nations” as essentially idealist and undemocratic. As Rosdolsky is mentioned in the bibliography of Hunt’s book, his approach may be based on Rosdolsky.

As I said before, I find Hunt’s book quite interesting and reasonably fair considering his politics.


33. CL - May 2, 2009

Marx/Engels: Ireland and the Irish Question. Published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971, printed in the USSR. 600 plus pages of very interesting material.
A ‘Publishers Note’ at the book’s beginning says:”Notes for the ‘History of Ireland’ and ‘Notes for the Preface to a Collection of Irish Songs’ have been translated by Angela Clifford.


34. Starkadder - May 2, 2009

Thanks for thank info, CL.Apparently Angela Clifford is
about to publish an new book on the Arms Trial next week.

Ralph Fox,the English Communist, wrote an essay on Marx,
Engels and Lenin’s attitudes to Ireland-it was reprinted by the
Cork Workers Club in the 1970s. Raynor Lysaght also did a
compilation of the main Marxist thinkers works on Ireland
called “The Communists and the Irish Revolution”.


35. Garibaldy - May 2, 2009

I have a copy somewhere of the American SWP’s magazine (International Socialism? or is that the British one?) with Lenin’s response to the 1916 rising included in it.

Angela Clifford worked on the Collected Works as well.

Great Engels quote CL.

So you’d recommend the book then Seán?


36. Seán Ó Tuama - May 2, 2009

Yeah, but I take the view that background is important in judging what are the central themes in a thinker’s ideas and what are the more peripheral themes . A thinker’s emphasis can also change according to political or personal circumstances. Therefore I think that biography can be important in determining what the core elements of a theoretical system are. In that context I think that Hunt does a good job in providing biographical background even I would not agree with all his conclusions. Having said that, the philosophical bits are better than the economic bits.

I found the stuff on national questions interesting because I have a particular theoretical interest in Marxism and the National Question.


37. Garibaldy - May 2, 2009

Thanks for that Seán. I agree context is important for judging a thinker’s ideas, although the right kind of context, and not trivia as some biographers go for.

Marxism and the National and Colonial Question is hard to beat.


38. Starkadder - May 2, 2009

Is there anything in the book about Engels’ interest in anti-pollution
measures? I have heard some commentators claim he was one of
the fathers of eco-socialism.


39. Seán Ó Tuama - May 2, 2009

Some but not that much in the book on Engels and the environment. Not sure whether that reflects Engels or the author. But there is mention of Engels’ disgust of the effects of industrialisation on the rivers both in his home town of Barmen in Germany and in Manchester. There are some hints of a growing sensitivity to the fact that the contradictions of capitalism included the environmental effects.
Not clear to what extent this may have reflected the younger, more “idealist” Engels as opposed to the older more “materialist” Engels.


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