2000s >> 2009 >> no-1254-february-2009

Book Reviews: ‘Engels – a Revolutionary Life’, ‘Capitalism’s New Crisis’, & ‘Les Souvenirs de Charles Bonnier’

General Engels

‘Engels: a Revolutionary Life’, by John Green. Artery £10

Engels is often seen as playing very much second fiddle to Marx. But, as John Green points out, he brought to their partnership a greater first-hand familiarity with working-class life and capitalist production and commerce. While not as readable as Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx, this book is still both interesting and informative.

Before reading Green, I had not properly appreciated how much military experience Engels had. In 1848-9 he took part in the ‘revolutionary’ (in fact democratic and anti-Prussian) uprisings in the Rhineland, seeing action on several occasions. These events led to his long interest in military matters, to his being named as military adviser to the Paris Commune, and to his nickname (among Marx’s daughters, for instance) of ‘The General’. They also resulted in the Prussian government’s naming him as a wanted man, and eventually to his decision in 1850 to work in the Manchester office of the firm part-owned by his father.

From his previous time in England had come his famous work The Condition of the Working Class in England. Now Engels was forced to work in the company office, though he managed to live a double life, one as a businessman and one as an activist with his companions Mary and Lizzie Burns. While formally an employee, he received a share of the firm’s profits (over £1000 in 1859), much of which he forwarded to Marx, and on his death he left the then-tidy sum of £25,000.

Green makes an interesting observation to do with the German word wissenschaftlich. This is usually rendered in English as ‘scientific’, as in ‘scientific Socialism’, but it can equally well mean ‘theory-based’, which has fewer connotations than ‘scientific’.

This would have been a better book if Green had simply chronicled his subject’s life and ideas. Unfortunately, his Leninist sympathies have induced him to include some observations that are at best superfluous and at worst downright misleading. He starts off badly by comparing Engels to Che Guevara: two good-looking young men from well-off families who supposedly took the side of the oppressed.

Engels’ military ideas helped Trotsky, Mao and Che, it’s claimed, and the League of Communists, which he joined in 1847, worked on the basis of democratic centralism, which later became a cornerstone of Leninist parties. The Bolshevik concept was in fact far more centralist than democratic, and Green just ignores Marx’s and Engels’ insistence on workers liberating themselves, a principle rejected by Leninists and all would-be leaders.

So a mixture of a good biography and some dodgy political pleading.



No socialism

‘Capitalism’s New Crisis: What Do Socialists Say?’ By Chris Harman. Socialist Workers Party, 2008. £1.50.

The author writes of capitalism “The key question is what is going to replace it…To finally get rid of capitalist crises, in short, you have to get rid of capitalism.”

With such promising revolutionary sentiments, you would surely expect some discussion of the socialist future, some mention (however brief) of common ownership, democratic control, production for use not profit. Not a bit of it. Harman offers instead ‘A People Before Profit Charter’, a ten-point mish-mash of reformist measures such as wage increases, more tax on big companies, less tax on the poor, no to the BNP.

The pamphlet has section headings which include free market failure, slump, boom and crisis, and the debt economy. These concepts sound familiar because they are scattered liberally in the broadsheet dailies, the weekly journals, radio and TV programmes that comment on the problems that “business” and hard-working men and women have to face. This pamphlet has some value in bringing together the various critiques of capitalism and the reforms that are offered to improve the system despite persistent past failures. It has no value at all in promoting revolutionary thought and action to change the system from capitalism to socialism.



Socialist souvenirs

‘Les souvenirs de Charles Bonnier. Un intellectuel socialiste européen à la belle époque’. Ed. Gilles Candar. Septentrion, Paris.

In a footnote that Engels added to the 4th German edition in 1891 of his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State he mentioned that “a French friend and admirer of Wagner” did not agree with a remark of Marx’s about the early family. The friend in question was Charles Bonnier, who at the time was a young man in his late 20s (he was born in 1863 and died in 1926).

Bonnier was a member of the French Workers Party and a personal friend of its leading figure, Jules Guesde. Because of his knowledge of German he represented the party at international congresses. He had originally planned to pursue an academic career, in linguistics, in Germany but was barred under Bismarck’s notorious Anti-Socialist Law. Instead, he went to England where he lived from 1890 to 1913, teaching in schools and to students in Oxford and, later, as a professor in French Literature at Liverpool University.

These memoirs (in French) are not all that political but he does have comments on the personalities of the leading lights of the Second International who he met, not just Engels but Wilhelm Liebknecht, Eduard Bernstein and Paul Lafargue. We learn that Eleanor Marx kept a number of black cats and that Engels had a nephew-in-law who was a Tory.


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