Upgrading Engels

Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class.
by Steven Marcus.
Random House. 271 pp. $8.95.

Marx continues to exert influence even—or especially—in countries without experience of revolutions undertaken in his name. The attraction his thought commands is not easy to explain or articulate unless one assumes either that Marxism is simply true or that it is the only game in town. The former is impossible to maintain for anyone who combines intelligence with integrity; the latter is obviously the case for many honorable and gifted men. But while such men may find the thought of Marx to be the most viable universe of discourse available to them, they are likely to feel ill at ease with a thinker who considered a multi-volumed study of capitalist economics to be his magnum opus. A realm of thought whose center is occupied by Das Kapital is not one conducive to thinking or speaking meaningfully about death, love, or God—topics not readily dismissed as mere bourgeois preoccupations. Various stratagems have been devised to circumvent this difficulty. One of them has been to find in Marx the completion and perfection of the thought first of Hegel and then of Rousseau, a process that threatens to end in a Left revival of interest in the pre-Socratics. Another tactic has consisted in orchestrating an old cliché according to which Marx was himself no Marxist, and of trying to cross-pollinate his ideas with those of more recent thinkers like Freud or even Heidegger.

Both these strategies involve the denigration of Friedrich Engels, who is thus certainly in need of the help Steven Marcus attempts to extend him in his latest foray into 19th-century culture—Marcus having previously written on Dickens and on Victorian pornography. In the updated view of Marx which combines him with psychoanalysis, existentialism, or some other intellectual phenomenon of our times, Engels tends to be seen as the villain who oversystematized and vulgarized the thought of the master whom he survived by twelve years. In the alternate view of Marx which traces him back toward classical thought, Engels tends to be chastised for being tied too closely to 19th-century science; it is conveniently forgotten that when the two men met in 1842 Engels was possibly more under the sway of Hegel than was Marx. Scarcely anybody seems to want to remember the enormous trust Marx placed in Engels during many years of intimate collaboration, and nobody seems to care that it is a book by Engels which has the distinction of being the first complete work in the Marxist canon: The Condition of the Working Class in England.

That book provides Marcus with a focus for his own study of 19th-century England. The upgrading of a downgraded Engels may not have been the main intention of Marcus’s study, but it is certainly one of its most refreshing effects. The Engels emerging from these pages is an immensely likable and agreeable human being, and one can’t help but be grateful to Marcus for rectifying a historical injustice toward a man who selflessly and with good humor did so much to sustain Marx, a thinker he recognized as a man of greater intellectual stature than himself.

But Marcus goes a good deal further, showing a commendable sympathy not only for the man, but for The Condition of the Working Class in England as well. He attempts to show that the book is not only an important one but a great one. He has no trouble in proving its importance. Few readers coming to the work either before or after Marcus’s interpretation will fail to be impressed by the amazing extent to which an almost full-blown Marxism makes its appearance there (though that may be because Marxism is actually simpler than its more passionates devotees make it out to be).

_____________

 

But not every important book is a great book, and on this score Marcus is somewhat less than fully convincing, though he labors valiantly. The Condition of the Working Class in England is open to a great number of criticisms. It paints a distorted picture of the history of England before the Industrial Revolution; its historical predictions have almost invariably turned out to be wrong; its indictment of the English middle classes is far from just—Engels tended to forget that most of the damaging evidence about conditions in Manchester and other places had been collected, in fact, by a middle-class regime with an uneasy conscience.

These and other faults make an especially glaring appearance in the most readily available English version of Engels’s book, translated and edited by W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner (Stanford University Press, 1968). Marcus works from the original German version—though he is gracious enough to admit his limitations in this regard and his own translations are at times debatable—but is forced to refer English readers to the edition prepared by Henderson and Chaloner. His indignation at their patent dislike of Engels is surely understandable; every author is entitled to a sympathetic editor. Still, flaws remain flaws even when exposed by hostile sources, and Marcus’s own defense of Engels against Henderson and Chaloner is itself open to question on a number of points.

Marcus leaves most of the detailed criticism of the “extraordinary deficiencies of both the editors’ attitudes and proceedings” to experts like Asa Briggs and E. J. Hobsbawm, reserving for himself a more lofty approach, that of the literary critic expanding the frontiers of his vocation. Upholding the cause of literary criticism even though nobody appears to be attacking it, Marcus wishes to show that it has useful things to contribute toward the understanding not only of, say, poems and novels, but of other kinds of books as well—The Condition of the Working Class in England, for example. He therefore sets out to subject that tome to a rather close textual analysis, the results of which are perhaps most fairly described as uncertain. At times, Marcus does produce genuine insights into what Engels was trying to do but at other times he does little more than paraphrase long stretches of Engels’s argument. His defense of Engels, if I understand it correctly, turns out to be that The Condition of the Working Class in England is after all a work of the literary imagination, and that Engels, far from distorting the history of the Middle Ages and making some very bad guesses about things to come, was engaged in “mythologizing” both the past and the future.

Now, such a defense is open to at least two serious objections. First of all, it assumes that Marcus understands Engels better than Engels understood himself, a very dubious proposition that is inherent in Marcus’s general orientation. His criticism, where it is not formalistic tends to be heavily indebted to Freud, as can be seen from the frequent use of words like “unconscious” and “unwitting.” But surely one ought first to pay sufficient heed to a writer’s explicit intentions and claims. In the case of Engels there can be little doubt that he thought he was writing treatises that deserved to be considered strictly scientific, and in a scientific treatise a factual error is a factual error, not the result of a process of mythologization. One can be almost certain that Engels, never afraid of polemical battles, would have preferred to he attacked by Henderson and Chaloner than to be defended by Marcus in so peculiar a manner.

_____________

 

The peculiarity and inadequacy of Marcus’s analysis and defense of Engels’s book also reveal themselves in his simple failure to give the reader an adequate sense of the book he is describing. To begin with, one could not possibly learn from Marcus’s account that The Condition of the Working Class in England is very heavy going indeed. Tedium, to be sure, is not an excessive price to pay for possible instruction in economic and political realities, but since Engels’s book most decidedly does not read like a novel, the reader must be pardoned for mistrusting Marcus’s attempt to read it that way. I suspect that even most Marxists are bored by vast stretches of this book, and, further, that much of this boredom is justified. Engels set out to create sympathy for the lot of the proletariat, but he failed adequately to describe the workers, their miseries and yearnings. One wants to know what it felt like to be a worker in Manchester in the 19th century. In this respect Engels is of almost no help, and neither is Marcus. He praises Engels for his concreteness but offers very little evidence of it, for the simple reason that such evidence is hard to find in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

If one really wishes to understand the plight of the lower classes in 19th-century England, one ought to go not to the Marxists, who certainly have no monopoly on sympathy for the poor, but to great novelists of the era like Dickens. The strange thing is that Marcus knows as much. He continually and sensitively quotes Dickens, and at one point even concedes that a comparison between Dickens and Engels can only be made at the expense of the latter, for “there is only one Dickens.” True. Yet instead of pursuing this comparison, which might lead to a really impressive justification of literature and of literary criticism, Marcus abandons it in favor of a series of ruminations that make one wonder what exactly he is trying to accomplish, and why.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link