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Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels Hardcover – August 18, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With strong scholarship in Marxist history and theory, a fluent style and some healthy doses of irony, Hunt (Building Jerusalem) traces the coauthor of The Communist Manifesto from his pious Prussian roots through his apprenticeship in the family textile firm in Manchester, England, early years at the forefront of revolutionary upheavals throughout Europe and his subsequent return to the family industry to support Marx's family and writing. Engels is characterized as a gregarious yet committed theorist and activist, providing considerable financial and intellectual resources to Marx while accepting his own role as second fiddle in their joint battle for socialist ideological dominance. Though the book makes a strong case for the value of Engels's own writings on working conditions and defends against reductive readings that would align him with the rigid orthodoxies of Leninism and Stalinism, the author is clear-eyed with regard to Engels's less savory, sometimes deeply chilling ideas and his divisive manipulations of organizations and party politics. This is an impressive biography of a fascinating figure whose attempts to synthesize his own contradictory roles as arch-capitalist and seminal communist, embody the very notion of dialectics so central to Marxist theory. (Aug.)
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From The New Yorker

“It all began over drinks,” Hunt writes of the forty-year collaboration between Karl Marx and his benefactor, ghostwriter, and best friend, Friedrich Engels. Engels’s life was defined by an awkward tension. When he could afford it, he was a muckraking journalist, street-fighting revolutionary, and international libertine. When he couldn’t, he was tethered to Manchester and his father’s cotton mill, supplying Marx with the money (and the empirical evidence) he needed to complete “Das Kapital.” This greatly enjoyable biography of “the original champagne communist” is a perceptive tour not just through Engels’s life but through philosophy and political thought in the nineteenth century, though it will inevitably be read through the lens of the twentieth. Engels saw the existence of the Slavs “in the heart of Europe as an anachronism,” at once indicating a low opinion of the people who would first embrace Marxism and hinting at the pitiless path Communism later took.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books (August 18, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805080252
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805080254
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,148,969 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jay C. Smith on September 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels
The collaborative friendship of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx is surely among the most remarkable in all of history. Engels is generally perceived as the junior partner and he readily acknowledged that "Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us." But the most notable aspect of their relationship might be how much it depended on Engels' personal sacrifices and generosity, both material and intellectual.

As this fine biography of Engels documents, Engels bankrolled Marx; originated certain seminal socialist ideas; co-wrote, edited, and translated various publications issued under Marx's name; acted as Marxism's chief political operative and publicist; fulfilled the role of a close "uncle" to Marx's daughters; and even took on the responsibility for the paternity of Marx's illegitimate son.

Hunt does an especially good job of setting the intellectual context in which the ideas of Engels and Marx developed and matured. He succinctly summarizes Engels' reactions to Hegel, Schleiermacher, Strauss, Hess, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon, Carlyle, Owen, and the Chartists, for example. He also captures well the continental politics of the 1840s and the roles Engels played in the revolutionary events of 1848-49.

Between 1850 and 1870 Engels was a junior partner in the family textile firm of Ermen & Engels in Manchester, where he lived a life of contradictions.
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Since the 1989 failure of communism, Marxism has fallen into disrepute. And yet harking back to my reading of "The Condition of the Working Class in Manchester in 1843" for a graduate course in field methods I was teaching forty years ago, I can recall the importance of both Marx and Engels' view of the world to my understanding of the inequalities of capitalist industrial society, America's imperialism in Vietnam and Latin America, and the civil rights movement. "The Condition of the Working Class" was indeed the first great work of urban sociology. Although bound by Marx and Engels' emerging blinders of class as the only independent variable, the study really takes one into the world of the industrial jetsam of Manchester. I set it as a model of how my students might learn as they immersed themselves in the multifold settings of Boston in the late 1960s. Available to them was a ghetto whose condition mirrored the oppression of Manchester, a dying factory economy being replaced by hi-tech, intellectual and medical services, an Irish and Italian-American resistance to integration, a working class and liberal rebellion against a war and an emerging counterculture. There abounded many a Mary Burns to take my Engels-like students into the cellars and demonstrations which were sprouting about them. Thank you Engels, no matter how wrong you might have been about the science of history.

As the author of this biography makes clear you can not hold Marx or Engels at fault for Stalinist brutality, Maoist insanity, or Pol Pot's murder of his own people, despite the fact they were done in the name of Marxism. Can we blame Thomas Paine for lynchings, the two million Vietnamese we killed, or the blockade of Cuba, Guatemala's right wing, or the US support of Jonas Savimbi's rape of Angola?
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This is an absolutely riveting dual biography of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that is beautifully written with some fine touches of ironic humor. I'm in awe of Tristram Hunt's achievement. This book didn't get enough attention when it was published here in the states (the author is a young Brit) and I can't figure out why. It's got everything you want to know about a famous friendship that altered the course of history.

Especially interesting to me, because I knew nothing about it, was Engels's and Marx's fascination with Darwin's theory of evolution and their abiding belief that human society would inevitably evolve in a similar "scientific" fashion. I always wondered where the odd belief in dialectical materialism as a "science" sprang from--- now I know.

Also odd: Engels, a polymath intellectual, invariably chose illiterate workingclass women as his sexual partners and closest female intimates. Despite his evident fear of intellectual women of his own class (what else could it have been but fear?), he wrote "The Origin of The Family, Private Property, and the State," a pretty good analysis of female oppression for its time.

My one big quibble with Hunt is that his citation system uses the definitive edition of Marx and Engels's works, which tells me nothing about when a particular work was first published.

I bought this book simultaneously with Frances Wheen's negligible biography of Marx that was touted by Christopher Hitchens. Forget Wheen (another young Brit). If you want to learn about Marx and Engels and the times they lived in, read "Marx's General".
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